Despite a mixed bag of recent releases, Spike Lee’s new film, a blistering race dramedy entitled BlacKkKlansman, is a stylish yet horrendous gut-punch, that draws in the audience with dark humour before ending with a grave sense of dread.
Resplendent in his seventies collars and earth-toned cords, Ron Stallwarth is hired as the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs and is quickly assigned to the intelligence unit, where he attempts to infiltrate the KKK by posing as a white supremacist, played in face-to-face meetings by fellow officer Flip Zimmerman. Soon, he’s won the trust of the local KKK group as well as its ultimate leader, the Grand High Wizard David Duke. It soon transpires that certain members of the KKK are planning on bombing a group of Black Power activists, one of whom Ron is dating. Utterly stylish and dripping with seventies soul-train nostalgia, the soundtrack perfectly complemented the storyline, contributing to the sense of community, with a glorious muted mustard yellow-tan colour scheme to boot.
Although some of the castings made me giggle (Mr Matthews from 90210 plays a KKK Chapter leader, police officer Chief Bridges was Bart Bass in Gossip Girl), John David Washington came up on top as the wry Detective Ron Stallworth. The character in general could’ve been better fleshed out though; it’s not satisfactorily explained why he wanted to be a policeman, what he was doing before, or most glaringly, why he was so unpolitical and disengaged from the Black Power movement. Enter Patrice – played by the beautiful Laura Harrier – who plays the president of the black student union at Colorado College. Her strength and conviction, both in acting and the character’s believability, shone through.
The weak link in the chain seemed to be Adam Driver’s Flip. Although he’s a naturalistic actor, so is Washington, yet his sardonic approach seemed to work so much better. Driver came across as somewhat flat and unconvincing, arguably a little bit side-lined like he was in 2016’s Silence with Andrew Garfield – always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Plus he pretty much wore the same shirt the entire film, which annoyed me to no end.
Using such a surprising amount of racist language was certainly shocking, but equally necessary to accurately portray what went on. That said, it certainly leads to moments of flinching and makes for uncomfortable viewing, such was clearly Lee’s aim. Racist cop Landers pulling over black students for no reason, abusing and humiliating them, is something we see in grainy iPhone videos over and over again on Facebook right now. Most unsettling, though, was Jasper Pääkkönen’s Felix Kendrickson – a terrifying epitomization of the Ku Klux Klan, with his hysterical rage, paranoia, brutality and hatred. Topher Grace’s David Duke, Grand High Wizard of the KKK, seemed a little too pared down and polite in comparison – a bland smarminess that lacked menace.
BlacKkKlansman is rich with cultural history, showing long excerpts of The Birth of A Nation as well as referencing Blaxploitation tropes, mirrored in the ending with Patrice and Ron drawing their guns after a mysterious knock at the door. We thought we may have been left with a happy ending of sorts regarding the bomb and Landers’ arrest, yet the skin-crawlingly chilling cross burning proves otherwise. It’s unsurprising that the film received an eight-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it also won the prestigious Grand Prix. The ending was truly jaw-dropping, unexpected, and you could hear a pin drop in the cinema; it’s certainly made evident that it was no coincidence that the film was released on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Although the comedy was seemingly put in place to remove some of the subject matter’s gravitas, it seemed stilted – not as well-employed as, for example, the dark humour embedded in last year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If you then count some awkward scene changes, the film didn’t flow as well as it could have. Provocative and more dishearteningly relevant than ever, though, BlacKkKlansman succeeds in eliciting a powerful response, unapologetic in its message and humorous in its fight.