In recent years, brilliant young African-African filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Boots Riley, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler have stormed the Hollywood system to offer urgent social commentary on America’s endemic cultural divide and enduring racism. But amidst Get Out and Selma, people seem to have forgotten that Spike Lee has been the big screen’s persistent radical black voice for many decades prior. And while his latter-day movies have been admittedly disappointing, the troubling nature of our contemporary political climate seems to have fired up the iconic director to create one of his most righteously furious works yet.
BlacKkKlansman is a welcome return to form for Lee, offering blunt and biting condemnation of white supremacists, vibrantly wrapped-up in a pulpy blaxploitation fantasy. There’s nothing subtle about this film, and the premise itself seems outrageous – but believe it or not – this tale of a of black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan is actually based on a real case that took place in the 1970s. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, where his daring undercover investigation of one of America’s most insidious hate groups became the stuff of legend.
(* It’s impossible to watch this film without thinking about The Chappelle Show‘s“Clayton Bigsby” sketch about a blind black white supremacist.)
Using his “white voice” over the phone, Stallworth manages to befriend and join the local chapter of the KKK. Aided by his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) – who poses as Stallworth during meetups and rallies – the pair successfully exposed and thwarted the extremists’ malicious plans from the inside. Naturally, Lee does take dramatic liberties on some of the details, but the film does stay true to spirit of Stallworth’s riveting memoir. The genius of BlacKkKlansman lies in its convincing ability to connect the absurd with the ugly. Yes, a lot of the KKK’s rhetoric is comical in it’s ignorance, but that doesn’t negate their danger.
There are jokes aplenty here, and they all land. But underneath the humour lies a disturbing truth that keeps you alarmed even as you’re laughing. Lee clearly pays homage to classic blaxploitations films like Shaft and Superfly in terms of sound and camerawork, whilst cleverly upending the genre’s tropes in sharply subversive ways. It’s a rare mix that can go from heroic and tragic to ferocious and ridiculous – thanks to the dynamite script’s convincing stakes, the escapism of it’s vibrant visuals, and the brilliance of the actors’ performances. The result is a blistering film that’s exhilarating in it’s execution and distressing in it’s messaging.
BlacKkKlansman draws intentional parallels between the past and the present, impassionedly screaming that for as much progress as America claims to have made in terms of diversity and equality – the same long-held evil ideologies still plague its institutions and significant portions of its people. Some of Lee’s critics may argue that this film lacks nuance, but in a time when race relations in America feels like a national emergency, perhaps it’s prudent to make the issue of black and white feel black and white. This isn’t a sober tap on the shoulder, this is a forceful smack to the face, and an unapologetic wake-up call for an age of political madness.