Against the backdrop of the mid-1970s civil rights movement, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Out to prove his worth, he audaciously infiltrates a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, with his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as a white supremacist.
Spike Lee’s latest joint commentating on race relations in America draws on amazing real-life events. The premise is ridiculously compelling and marks one of the first overtly political films to be released in the Trump era. Although the story is set in the mid-1970s, it’s inevitable that Lee would draw parallels to the new era of intolerance in America. It’s ground he launched his career from in the late 1980s with Do the Right Thing, an unflinching dissection of race in Brooklyn. In a new age and with a new setting, BlacKkKlansman, as compelling as it is, just doesn’t hit that high mark.
We open with a prologue, a historical PSA led by a college professor spewing hate speech about maintaining White American values against mounting socio-racial influences. Played to a tee by Alec Baldwin, the parallels between his character and his caricature of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live are blatant. This message is carefully subverted, Baldwin’s character tripping over words and twitching angrily after each mistake – striking an instant contemporary political chord. It foreshadows the other, more serious, bookending political statement, which shocks viewers out of the familiar narrative ending. These sections really stand out from the main story. Viewers become so engrossed in the comfortable story of an intelligent black cop’s campaign against slack-jawed racist antagonists that we almost forget the political message. BlacKkKlansman promised a tirade of anger against White American racism throughout the decades – but lets the viewer off the hook with a familiar tale of good versus evil. The Ku Klux Klan members are caricatured racism, laughable. Their actions are familiar but make the motivations of Ron and the other ‘heroes’ more two dimensional. When it’s good versus evil, we don’t have to think that racism comes in more forms than under a white hood.
The performances in BlacKkKlansman are excellent, if a little ham-fisted in motivating the diluted political message. Adam Driver stands out as the nonchalant Flip, whose motivation in helping the case doesn’t get enough focus, particularly in his conflict as a Jewish American ‘passing’ as White. John David Washington also dazzles as the charismatic Ron, while Jasper Pääkkönen and Laura Harrier are both very impressive in supporting roles. Topher Grace, playing noxious Klan leader David Duke, also doesn’t get enough to do. So much could have been made of Duke’s attempts to institutionalise racism through his radio talk show (played throughout the film) and smart dress – but Grace is left to pander for laughs as just another easy caricature of dumb White America.
Lee exhibits interesting camera work and visual elements throughout, including a set piece lampooning blaxploitation films mid-narrative and a curious call back to the same genre at the film’s climax. He also crafts an intensely compelling adapted script from the source novel with collaborators Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott. It’s a case of so near, yet so far for Lee – a stern political message that gets lost while telling a compelling but familiar story.
Lee’s film is an exciting and well-acted venture – but nothing more, grandiose political statements ultimately shelved for narrative entertainment. 7/10.