BlacKkKlansman spins a fiendishly hilarious yarn that would even make Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder pause in sheer bemusement. Set in the early seventies, BlacKkKlansman chronicles Detective Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration and subsequent exposure of a local Ku Klux Klan group. He does this by employing a deceptive double act, wherein he keeps in contact with various members of the clan on the phone, and his partner, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends their gatherings (in person) to extract information.
While Spike Lee’s new film is undoubtedly a crowd-pleasing comedy that will often unite audiences in regular fits of laughter and disgust, it is the moments shaded in the margins that are particularly resonating.
The infiltration operation is a jumping off point for an exploration of a different kind of bigotry as Zimmerman is confronted with a pervasive anti-Semitism streak within the organisation. Consequently, the character has to come to terms with his Jewish upbringing and faith.
With this in mind, there is a parallel that the film draws between the marginalisation of black and Jewish people. This comes from the tension in the stake that both officers have in the undercover operation. In one scene, Zimmerman points out that Stallworth sees the endeavour as a crusade and he sees it as a job. Stallworth responds by pointing out that he ought to be as outraged at the clan for their views on Jews. This scene illustrates that much like Ron Stallworth has to display a considerable amount of calm and restraint in the face of institutional prejudice, so does Flip Zimmerman in dealing with members of the clan.
Adam Driver delivers a nuanced performance that impresses in evoking a subdued sense of uneasiness, particularly evident in the moments between the pleasantries and friendly gesturing with the clansmen. Equally as impressive is John David Washington who walks a fine line between being a spirited embodiment of blacksploitation coolness and worldly sombreness.
At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a genuine showcasing of the role that cinema plays in giving power to ideology. The film opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind in which an elaborate crane and tracking shot shows Scarlett O’Hara attempting to find a doctor amongst a train deport of wounded soldiers. The scene ends with the camera panning up to reveal the Confederate flag. With the use of the footage, Spike Lee reminds the audience that the typically rosy cultural portrait of the Victor Fleming picture was rooted in a Southern viewpoint of the Civil War.
Crucially, Lee posits that cinema has given much more power to white supremacy movements then it has to the disenfranchised minority. A protracted cross-cutting sequence of clan members enjoying D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film- The Birth of a Nation juxtaposed with a black community leader telling his fellow brethren about the ensuring violence it had on black people is powerful in illustrating this fact.
Throughout the film, there is a persistent debate between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Dumas is the president of the local black student union. They argue about the best course of action advocating for black rights. Stallworth thinks its best to work within the system, and Dumas contends that protesting against oppression will get people to listen and engage.
During one of their discussions, they both bring up Blaxploitation as a subgenre in cinema. Dumas concludes that it does not ultimately help the cause because fantasy can’t offset the problems of reality.
Lee wonderfully evokes the stylish nature of the genre for the ending by framing Stallworth and Dumas like Blaxploitation characters. Soon after, there is a hellish sequence involving a KKK cross burning ceremony. The film then employs an extensive amount of newsreel footage from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. With this choice, Lee suggests the empowering nature of Blaxploitation and how it has armed an entire generation against an incoming wave of disenchantment.
Despite being rough around the edges and having too many ideas thrown at the dartboard in a fragmented fashion, BlacKkKlansman is a potent parable for our times and a reminder of how movies have helped in shaping it.
If this film is “rough around the edges,” I chalk that up to being part of Lee’s aesthetic. Nice review!