Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, I don’t think im stepping on many toes by saying this. He specialises in issue led films which have clear and important messages often centred on American racial division. Here however Lee uses his anger at the racial segregation being pushed by the POTUS (Agent Orange as he calls him) to craft a powerfully prescient story of the importance of overcoming racism and the spread of hateful language in modern culture. However Lee is no fool and knows he needs to make it entertaining and oh is BlacKkKlansman fun to watch.
Lee uses the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black policeman in the Colorado Springs Police force who at first is overlooked because of his race. However when he is transferred to the intelligence section of the force he quickly begins to use his wit and intelligence to ingratiate himself over the phone with the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. As he is obviously not the desired recruit for such a group it falls to another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to visit and delve deeper into the Klan to monitor them and see how dangerous they are to public safety. John David Washington and Adam Driver as Stallworth and Zimmerman are a really effective duo, with Stallworth taking the job as a subversive crusade to fight racism from the inside, whilst Zimmerman slowly begins to understand that the investigation has more and more poignancy for him than he first realised. The two actors are perfectly cast, having not seen John David Washington in anything before he was immensely impressive, and seems to have picked up all the charisma and chops of his Oscar-winning father Denzel Washington. Meanwhile Adam Driver yet again teaches a masterclass in understatement and empathy. Lee uses this true story to craft a kind of buddy cop movie where the two men most identify with each other over their status as minorities in America and in definition by the Klan themselves.
Lee treats the Klan as both comic figures and as people who are genuine threats to America there may be braying bumbling idiots in the organisation but there are also more cunning and measured racists who are the real threats. Topher Grace as David Duke, the then grand wizard of the KKK plays him with a creepy self-assurance. Duke is more bank manager than racist monster but the language he uses gives him away. Lee is also very clearly drawing parallels between one monster and another, our current POTUS. Duke is responsible for the phrase America First after all, Dukes own political motives are viewed as a ridiculous pipe dream in the film, a cringe inducing exchange that really hammers home how dark America is right now. The power of language is really called to the forefront in the film, whether it’s from civil rights activists speaking truth to power, or from the bigots of the Klan spewing bile at every opportunity. Honestly the language that the Klan do use in the film became hard to hear after a while, the sheer abrasiveness of their speech really brings the power in those words home (if that was needed to begin with).
Somehow Lee balances the moods of this film very delicately whilst still being able to hammer home its political message. The film is challenging and yet incredibly fun to watch, it zips along with a real verve and is funny to boot. The pace and wit of the film may come from Lee’s clear influence he’s taking from the Blaxploitation films he namechecks within the film. Their slightly overwrought action and soundtracks make an appearance in the film as well as their humour. Lee has always managed to do this balance of humour and serious discussion, think of Do the Right Thing which is an incredibly funny film but also has a strong seam of pathos running through it. The 70s aesthetic of this film is all-encompassing, Lee is clearly drawing our attention to the period and trying to say that whilst this might seem like another world filled with beige and olive clothes and massive Afros, the issues are still the same and are actually getting worse in our current world. The world is incredibly well realised, with everything from the editing techniques to the spot on period detail and costumes.
The films ending is another strong point of this film but do not worry I am not spoiling the overall plot of the film, there is just a moment in which we are pulled out of the past and planted in the here and now which was immensely affecting. Lee uses a short montage of footage from the white power marches in Charlottesville North Carolina to reflect back on us the reality of what the film has been talking about, these bigots that may have had to hide before are now marching in the street with the support of the President, once again Lee is asking us to ‘Wake up’ and get woke to what’s going on. A message that after a film this good, is hard to say no to.
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