Director: Spike Lee
Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
BlacKkKlansman is perhaps the most enjoyable film Spike Lee has made in years, if not decades.
It bursts on to the screen with a thumping, uncomfortable cameo from Alec Baldwin as a white-power extremist banging out a flood of racist language and images designed to make viewers squirm. But Baldwin is not the story. He’s a relic (or is he) from another era as is America’s civil war which is also referenced. They are both just starters leading to the main course of a story from the 1970s.
John David Washington (son of Denzel) stars in a very solid lead performance. He plays Ron Stallworth who joins the Colarado Springs police force as its first black officer complete with a huge 70s affro. After a soul-sapping period in the records department he is given an assignment to go undercover to suss out the intentions of black activists at a local college. A potential romance blossoms which turns sour when he is revealed to be ‘the enemy’, namely a cop. From this experience of playing a role Stallworth embarks on an audacious plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the white hood wearing Ku Klux Klan. He speaks on the telephone ‘in a white voice’ to the head honchos, including eventually the grand wizard himself, David Duke, played impressively by Topher Grace, while his white colleague played by Adam Driver attends the face to face meetings pretending to be him.
Remarkably, the plan works. Even more remarkably, this story is based on true events.
All the performances; lead and supporting are sharp and convincing but it is Driver who gives the film its gravitas and heart. He is appealing in this film in a way that he has not managed to be, for me, at least, in anything else he’s done including or maybe especially his stint as Kylo Ren. He plays the Jewish guy who has never really embraced his background and now forced to deny it at his Klansman meetings has to battle his conflicting feelings.
While the language is often crude and strong and the racial/political message laid on with a trowel, Lee at times displays a deftness of touch in his handling of potentially incendiary issues which is very welcome from him. There are moments of broad comedy which is actually funny and the Klansmen (and one or two women) are not mere pantomime villains.
So it’s a shame that the promotion for the film’s release in the US and Lee’s interviews at Cannes focused on Trump. There are more interesting issues raised in the film and the story which deserve reasoned discussion in an increasingly violently polarised world. The actors too are falling over themselves to tell us how wonderfully sound and beyond criticism their personal politics are instead of reflecting on the the emotional and social complexities of the characters they play.
Blackkklansman could have been a powerfully influential film. Instead it’s more an entertaining one – and that works well too.