Quentin Tarantino managed to poke fun at the Ku Klux Klan in that hilarious scene involving misshapen pillow slips from Django Unchained. Whilst Spike Lee does offer up some opportunities to laugh at the poisonous world view that one particular chapter of the Klan embodies, BlackkKlansman is by no means light-hearted. Despite the preposterous nature of the plotline – a black man becoming part of the Klan – the film is more of a blistering sermon on the dangers of hate and prejudice.
The film opens with a ranting display of bucolic vitriol from one Dr Kennebrew Beauregard, who splutters and stammers his way through a list of racial slurs. It is bookended by something equally frightening – real life scenes of far right violence in Charlottesville. Lee does tell the viewer that what they are about to see is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he is keen to draw parallels with ongoing racial tensions in America.
At the heart of the film – and no doubt its biggest strength – are the performance from its leading cast. John David Washington, as undercover policeman Ron Stallworth, absolutely holds your attention throughout. Watching him attempt to marry up his racial identity with his career path is incredibly poignant. Topher Grace is surprisingly engaging as National Director, David Duke. Adam Driver is, once again, sensational as Flip Zimmerman – another young cop who is struggling with his identity.
There a plenty of homages to the “blaxpoitation” films of the 1970s, a genre that Lee so clearly adores and takes great strength from. Terence Blanchard’s punchy, disco-era score furthers the tribute to the era in which the film is set. There is also a clear celebration of African American beauty, as Lee chooses to highlight the adoring faces of black students whilst they listen to Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) pontificate about loving themselves.
Lee provides neat juxtaposition between scenes of Stallworth and his love interest, Patrice (Laura Harrier) making plans for their future and Klan member Felix (the excellent Jasper Paakkonen) and his wife making plans to blow up a demonstration.
The plot doesn’t go into too much detail about Stallworth’s actual investigation into the Klan – beyond a few phone calls – which is a shame, given the film’s two hour runtime. It starts to stutter a little towards the middle, but soon picks up again.
The portrayal of the Klan itself – from softly-spoken, besuited men to snarling, aggressive rednecks – is interesting, with particular regard to Ashlie Atkinson’s character, Connie. She looks like the perfect, homespun Americana wife who spends her days making apple pies, creating the perfect contrast to the vile prejudices that she repeatedly rattles off.
Lee goes in really heavy with the most obvious markers of racial divide in America. There is plenty of exposure as to the heavy-handed treatment young black students receive at the hands of white policemen. Even Stallworth stands out as the only black man on the Colorado Springs force – making him as easy a target for racial abuse as the man on the street.
We are shown scenes of the Confederate army in Gone with the Wind and sections of D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation – hammering home the point that mainstream racism has been a form of cinematic entertainment for centuries. There is also a particularly disturbing scene in which noted Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte goes into great detail about the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. So, whilst we are laughing at these hooded idiots cheering on a black and white film, we are slapped in the face with a damning indictment as to where this type of racism can lead.
BlackkKlansman is every bit as polemic as it is comedic; as relevant as it is reflective; as poignant as it is provocative. A really excellent piece of cinema that stresses the need for all power for all the people.