In 2017, the world looked on in horror at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a vicious car attack on the counter-protest that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead.
BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee – whose movies have charted race relations in the US for over 30 years – is a direct response to those events and a certain politician’s inability to condemn right-wing fanaticism. Dedicated to Heyer, the movie takes us back to the ’70s to expose the hateful, shocking attitudes that still abound today.
Did we mention that it’s also a comedy? And a police procedural based on a truly bizarre and unlikely true story? Lee’s latest is a rollercoaster that is laugh-out-loud when it isn’t shocking you into stunned silence.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Faced with the racist attitudes of his colleagues and called upon to go undercover at a civil rights rally, he decides to use his position to investigate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
He builds a relationship with the KKK – including their ‘Grand Wizard’, David Duke (Topher Grace) – over the phone, while recruiting his Jewish partner Flip (Adam Driver) to impersonate him and meet the Klan in the (white) flesh. The pair find themselves in a fight to counter the KKK’s shady activities in the face of the indifference of their commanding officers.
BlacKkKlansman walks a fine line between the hilarious and the horrifying – with some unbearable tension thrown in as the KKK’s plot comes to a head. Ron’s conversations on the phone with Duke are some of the most memorable and amusing in the movie, with the cop and his pals guffawing at the pomposity and ignorance of the Grand Wizard.
The film will tickle you at one moment, and the next hit you with some of the foulest and most hateful language a person could use against black people, Jews and women. It’s chilling, literally, like a dunk in a cold bath – and it’s also impossible to pretend that you would have to go far to hear this sort of rhetoric used today. Welcome to 4chan, ladies and gentlemen.
The other horrors of the film are subtler – Alec Baldwin’s ‘scientific’ white supremacist spewing hatred over a soaring, stirring soundtrack or Duke’s thin veneer of gentility and education that hides bottomless malice beneath.
The leads put in some understated but powerful performances. As Ron, Washington (a former professional footballer and son of one Denzel Washington) hides his sensitivity – and rage – beneath a placid, almost unflappable exterior, with a dash of dry humour. Similarly, the ever-brilliant Driver manages to subtly convey his own anger and disgust while playing the undercover cop who can’t let his KKK ‘friends’ see through the façade. Only the audience can see what’s going on beneath the surface.
The film is a gorgeous and stylish period piece, building a rich and fully realised ’70s world in shades of brown and orange, with affectionate nods to the blaxploitation movies of the era, and not-so-affectionate references to Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation (which Lee’s KKK watch and applaud while eating popcorn). When civil rights leader Kwame Ture (played by The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins) addresses a rally, the camera lingers lovingly on the thoughtful faces of his audience floating in the darkness.
BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle takedown of racism. It incorporates footage from Charlottesville, leaving absolutely no doubt about the parallels that Lee is drawing between those events and Ron’s story. “America would never elect someone like David Duke,” says Ron to his colleague, and you laugh – and then you pause, and maybe feel a bit sick.
In other places the critique is subtler, especially in the Klan’s attitude to women and homosexuality – Ashlie Atkinson’s KKK housewife is a particularly uncomfortable portrait of a woman both sidelined by and complicit in her husband’s hate. Driver’s Flip is faced with thorny issues of being able to ‘pass’ among the KKK, knowing that they could kill him if they knew the truth of his Jewishness. Ron, too, is confronted by the question of whether a black cop can change a racist system from within. A question to which, the movie acknowledges, there is no easy answer.
It’s become something of a cliché to say that ‘BlacKkKlansman is the film we need now’. What it is is a powerful response to a dark moment in history, and a reminder that racism and bigotry is alive and well. It’s also a damn fine and funny piece of entertainment, and a testament to Lee’s skills as an artist. And good art is something we need at any time.
Director: Spike Lee; Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace; Running time: 135 minutes; Certificate: 15
BlacKkKlansman is out now in the US and will be released in the UK on August 24.
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