BlacKkKlansman first look: Spike Lee uncloaks America’s heart of darkness

Spike Lee’s raucous investigative satire of American white nationalism whoops up a true fairy tale of anti-racist swamp-draining – without obscuring the bigger picture of a bigotry that endures.

Sophie Monks Kaufman
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John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman

The major achievement of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, starring John David Washington (son of Denzel) as an undercover police officer and Adam Driver as his white, Jewish front man, is not what it says, but all the different ways it says it. Lee paints with tone, using different modes of humour to skewer the basic mentality of bigots, satirise the notion of white America, and savour the absurdity of the true story from which this film has been adapted.

Ron Stallworth’s 2014 autobiography Black Klansman detailed how a black cop became a celebrated member of the Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. To disguise what would have been a deal-breaker with The Organisation (as they call themselves) Stallworth enlisted the help of a white colleague, Flip Zimmerman, who posed as him at meetings. Meanwhile Stallworth operated as himself on phone discussions, becoming a confidante of the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke.

With his co-writers (David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott) Lee has written a script fluent in the language of his oppressors. Whereas in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri hate speech was deployed in a way that seemed intended to shock the audience, here racial slurs are positioned as a moronic code used by those who don’t understand how to bond with each other like humans. This is contrasted with the warmer way Ron interacts with Flip and his love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier), the radical and eloquent President of the Colorado College Black Student Union (CCBSU) whom he meets on an undercover assignment to cover a speech by Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael (an address that Corey Hawkins delivers like a lighting bolt from the skies).

Topher Grace as David Duke

Topher Grace as David Duke

Lee can’t resist riffing on the richness of his core concept, meaning there are stretches with the narrative motor revving, but nothing moving forward. These sections play like extended satirical sketches and lean on performances uniformly calibrated to riff on the film’s tone of fantastical irony. Topher Grace takes on the role of David Duke with an eerily polite finesse, while as usual Driver is the most valuable player, channeling the psychological complexity of a Jewish man who ‘passes’ but wakes up to having ‘skin in the game’ – catalysed by his friendship with Stallworth and the vicious anti-Semitism that Lee includes in his depiction of the KKK.

This is an unapologetically patchy and scattershot film, driven to include what Lee damn well wants to include – from stark history lessons, like Harry Belafonte recounting the lynching of Jesse Washington, to an answerphone message that circles the banality of evil: “You have reached the Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Please leave a message.” The most knowing moments come through barely-veiled references to Trumpist America, as when Duke portends to Stallworth: “There should be more people like you in public office. For America to achieve its… greatness.”

These words would be dangerous spoken to enable a racist, but spoken to a black cop posing as a white man they are played for yuks, and the majority of BlacKkKlansman is drained of the peril usually associated with the most toxic white supremacist organisation in the world. Nonetheless, when Lee drops the jokes and speaks from the heart, the film feels marinated in the blood of his lost brother and sisters. BlacKkKlansman is a fairy tale in which plucky underdogs run rings around violent idiots. Yet this victory is hollow, and Lee knows it. Although he spends most of the film ploughing fertile ground for different strains of humour, he ends up in a place of grief. History isn’t over, he says in this booming state-of-the-nation address. Styles have changed, but racism remain a timeless statement in the USA.

 

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