Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
“A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.
Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.
The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.
If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.
I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.
BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.
It placed 8th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.