Undoubtedly one of this years most important film releases, BlacKkKlansman is the latest film from acclaimed director Spike Lee, known for shining a cinematic light on the plight of being an African-American in a discriminatory world (Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X being the best examples in his filmography).
The film generated positive buzz from its premiere at the annual Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the Grand Prix award, Spike Lee’s first honour from the festival.
The film itself could not be more timely, given the current political, and social, climate in the States right now. It was even released in the US exactly one year to the day of the now infamous Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally, where one woman lost her life in a racially charged attack (which we’ll revisit later).
So in tumultuous times such as these, will BlacKkKlansman capture timely lightening in a bottle?
In early 1970’s Colorado, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) a young,African-American man becomes the first Black cop in Colorado Springs sets his sights high early, by trying to infiltrate the infamous hate-group, The Ku-Klux Klan, enlisting a white cop to be his face in the organisation as they unravel a conspiracy to launch several attacks.
As I said earlier, this film could not be more timely. It is like a cinematic time-capsule, not only being terrifying, but familiar in modern times, if that was Mr Lee’s intention, then he comfortably achieved it.
Not only is it a stark reminder of how we haven’t learned much in the last 40 years, it’s also an extremely engrossing and well-made movie. The story, despite being so unbelievable is based on a true story, some text at the start of the movie assures us that it is based on: “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” (his words, not mine).
As much as the story is engrossing from pitch alone, this film is very-much character driven, it hinges on us not only buying into the plot to infiltrate the Klan but to buy into Ron’s struggles, along the way learning more about the world and the characters around him.
John David Washington is our lead man, and he seems to have inherited magnetism and charisma from his famous father (Denzel Washington) and he slips into the Ron Stallworth role with ease, making it look easy to recreate this real-life person and making us buy into his struggles and come to like the character, he’s stuck between two worlds; the mostly-white and routine police department, and his blossoming relationship with a Black activist, who he was initially sent to investigate but grows close to.
While a double-life plot is nothing new, the stakes are so high on his life and career that it becomes logical, one wrong move either way and his life is under threat from either Black nationalists or white nationalists, it’s an important pendulum that has to be kept balance for narrative cohesion, and the eventual time when the mask falls is as sweet as ever for it, him getting one over on the Klan while his relationship with Patrice (the leader of the black student union, with whom he has become involved) comes to a bittersweet end, even in its conclusion it balances the vital narrative pendulum.
Elsewhere in the cast there’s the cinematic chameleon Adam Driver in co-lead position as Flip Zimmerman, the white cop who becomes the public face of ‘Ron Stallworth’ to the Klan. My description of Driver as a chameleon is a deliberate one, as he seems to blend into whatever role he plays with expert skill, he’s one of my favourite parts of the new Star Wars films, and threatens to steal the film from Washington here, his character is nuanced, he’s a Jewish man which would put him at odds with the Klan’s ideals but he both has to conceal his heritage, while not particularly identifying with it either, this is an arc that creeps up in importance, all coming together for the conclusion very nicely.
Topher Grace is also worth a mention for his portrayal of David Duke the ‘Grand Wizard’ of the KKK, the memories of Spider-Man 3 far behind him, he gives a uniquely disturbing performance, making your skin crawl with his every speech.
Those who read my reviews on a regular basis will know that I keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, and while I’m going to stick to that I will mention the incredibly harrowing and moving ending. Tying the narrative quite nicely to modern times, it literally took my breath away with its visceral and unwavering portrayal of genuine hatred.
In conclusion, this is one of this years strongest offerings so far and a fantastic return to form from Spike Lee, his directorial style is recognisable here, laying on deliberate African-american stereotypes to subvert their usual uses to tear them down, instead building them up all framed with a ‘so unbelievable it must be true’ plot and you have an effective and incredibly startling piece of cinema.