Black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. Reading that one sentence logline you’d be forgiven that that sort of high concept concept may be the work of some outlandishly un-PC Mel Brooks comedy, but as the opening titles tell us this is actually “Inspired by some fo’ real shit.” Before we witness an out of context sequence from the classic film Gone with the Wind but one that come the end reaches a startling clarity. It is one of a number of unsubtle yet hugely effective uses of real world texts to cement the palpable messages on display. You cannot blame Spike Lee for wanting to sermonise a little, BlacKkKlansman is a chance for him to challenge the hatred and the anger that is now sadly becoming even more prevalent within America. Lee has always danced with volatile political statements but Klansman represents a remarkable maturity in the director, lacking the rough around the edges energy of his earlier works in favour of a measured more mainstream piece.
Things start off strongly as we’re introduced to Ron Stallworth (John David ‘Son of Denzel’ Washington) becoming the first African-American cop in the Colorado Police Dept. A brash overly confident fellow, a sign of which you get a sense is down to maintaining fortitude amidst much racial aggression, he soon finds himself part of the Undercover team, working to infiltrate cells that could threaten the public’s safety. In a bold move he contacts the local KKK clan and pulls himself off as an angry white man out for revenge. Surprisingly they buy into his gamble, due to his politeness and intellectual tone which they remark is impossible from a coloured individual. This delightful irony is honed into frequently, with Lee playing it up for maximum comedic value. However when they ask to meet him Ron has to call on his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pretend to be him. How deep the two of them get is something you need to discover for yourself but Lee gets huge amount of tension from the possibility of them being discovered.
This stems largely from the aggressively paranoid Felix played with sweaty unpredictability by Jasper Paakkonen, who sees Flip (or Ron as he knows him) as a threat to his dubious KKK stature. The scenes between him and Driver are incredibly tense, with the feeling of violence never seeming far away. It is something that Lee builds into the entire film, a gnawing sense that at any moment things could erupt and blood will be shed on both sides. In some ways it better highlights the dreadful feelings at the heart of America than his more overtly political statements which hit at a number of times and so bluntly refer to Trump that you feel like the characters are one word away from actually saying his name into the camera. There is a delicate game to be playing here, for whilst these white bigoted men are no doubt monstrous, you cannot just portray them as solely evil. Felix is perhaps too far into moustache twirling bigotry (conversations he has with his equally racist wife are uncomfortable but feel perhaps a little too one note). Fairing better are a number of the more calmer respectable members of Klan, which in turn makes them feel more realistically terrifying, the banality and friendliness of monsters. Ryan Eggold plays one such person, as one of the subsets of leaders within the KKK he is charmingly decent. Desperately trying to hold back the propensity for violence so many of the members have, and taking on a best mate vibe with Driver, yet still capable of such hideous outbursts. This is the sort of man we must fear, surface level smiles whilst underneath the hatred grows.
Even worse is their fabled leader (or Grand-Wizard) David Duke. Topher Grace gives possibly one of his best performances as the ‘decent’ and charitable public figure. Careful to avoid any mention of the Klan or their racist rhetoric in public, but in private prone to nastiness of true vitriol. Grace makes him seem scary yet pitiable, a delicate balance to play. The film is in fact chock full of mesmerising performances, Driver continues to prove why he is one of the best actors working today. A performance of silence and observation, but in brief moments he lets true vulnerability escape (one scene that sees him reference how the case is affecting his own personal ideals is a disarming moment of sadness). Laura Harrier jumps from the mainstream lightheartedness of Spider-Man: Homecoming into something with more bite as the socially conscious Patrice. Dedicated to black rights, and falling in with Washington’s cop, she gives an energetically hungry performance, full of that world-conquering confidence yet childish naivety that so dog you in your 20s. Patrice longs to see change but has that youthful desire to see it actioned through noble loud protest, as opposed to the mature deliberative patience favoured by the older Stallworth. They make for interesting opposites, him seeing the way to fight back is through entering the system and gradually changing it, her believing outspoken blunt attacks are the way forward. Lee is careful to give both sides breathing room to make their mark.
Washington’s Ron is an intriguing character, seemingly without a social conscious, or at least one that is buried deep within, but so committed and hungry to make his undercover op work that you sense it will feel like his own victory at bringing down the white oppression. You never get a true sense of his overall character, vulnerabilities fleeting, and largely full of macho bravado. Washington is wonderful to watch though, blessed with his father’s knack for smooth confidence, yet his feels a bit more externalised rather than Denzel’s eyes driven internalisation. Mind you they do sound eerily similar in voice at times. It marks him out though as a true talent.
However this is really Lee’s film, and his confidence here is through the roof. He takes his time, perhaps too long (the film gets a little repetitive in its middle act), and controls the tone remarkably. BlacKkKlansman is not afraid to be laugh out loud funny, amidst the dreadfully pertinent racism and high stakes. He captures the 70s with brash gusto, with all its big hair and disco dancing, albeit the extended sequence of Patrice and Ron dancing felt a little unnecessary. What truly works though and what gives the film such power is the third act. A culmination of all the tension and threats into a beautifully edited sequence featuring the horror of D.W Griffith’s malignantly racist Birth of a Nation being screened for the Klan whilst Harry Belafonte appears in front of Patrice’s group detailing the tragic real life story of a wrongly convicted black boy. It is a staggeringly well orchestrated piece of cinema, one that wraps you up in a feeling of such pain and disgrace that it deserves to be screened for teenagers everywhere. It is possibly Lee’s finest moment as a filmmaker and one of my favourite scenes this year. After that the film does drift a little, never quite knowing how to wrap things up, albeit Lee does save the most powerful blow for last. A sobering reminder of just how little things have changed since the 70s, and a massive dose of barely contained outrage. Lee’s film may be a little on the nose, but at this point and with this much at stake I think he is allowed to be.
Verdict: BlacKkKlansman is brazenly cool and hugely entertaining, yet underneath it all lies an intense rage. A call to stand firm in the face of such crippling hate. Lee’s film is vital urgent cinema.