Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" is a satire of the ludicrously true to life tale of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the rookie African-American cop that infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. As an early title in the film says: “This joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” Working with white officer Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) the Colorado Springs Police Department operates a two-pronged undercover task force. Over the phone Ron (Washington exercising a Richard Prior level white guy impression) makes the connections and when the Klansmen want to meet, Flip (Driver) is his stand-in. To paraphrase Denzel, "Catfish" ain't got shit on this.
Screenwriters Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott adapt Ron Stallworth's novel of the same name. Washington, son of the legendary Denzel Washington, plays Ron. He's got confidence, a smooth timbre to his voice and his eyes have piercing quality. Even though Ron's a rookie on this force, you find yourself trusting his instincts. Laura Harrier plays Patrice Dumas (you may be surprised that she's the love interest in Spiderman: Homecoming), a political activist that enraptures Ron as he's undercover. Harrier has a way of carrying herself that exudes a fierce intelligence. She's formidable in a way that Ron is not. Ron feels like he's flying on the seat of his pants, mainly because he is. While Patrice is intelligent, passionate and doesn't underestimate the cost of what she's fighting for.
Adam Driver is able to make himself at home in almost any character. Whether it's the Prince of the Dark Side of the Force Kylo Ren in "Star Wars," unassuming bus driver poet in "Paterson," or a one-armed bartender in "Logan Lucky", he can get you to relax into his portrayal. There's something here that Lee taps into, so that despite this posture of comfort, his eyes are like the window of an arcade game, as his lightning-fast emotional computations flicker through each glint.
Topher Grace has the unenviable task of playing Grand Wizard of the Klan, David Duke. Wrestling with dialogue that could have easily felt too clever, or too much like a "moustache twirling" caricature, Grace is able to make Duke memorable by approaching him with sweetness. In a recent late night interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Carrey describes his latest character in prestige T.V show "Kidding" as a 'Mr Rogers' type… a kind of pure sincerity that this cynical world appears to have squashed into extinction. Grace's Duke has a similar air which -when paired with the perversity of his convictions - makes for a divinely hilarious experience (something you wouldn’t necessarily associate with such a notorious figure).
Lee uses perspective and the voyeuristic practice of watching people watching things happening (a device popularised by Spielberg) to feed the not-so-subtle parallels to our own time. The portrayals of power are explicit in the emotions Lee's having us register in the performers and spaces in the film. For the black people in Colorado Springs, persecution is a way of life. As they attend a local speech from a Civil Rights activist, Lee turns up the darkened rooms with the hope of people yearning to tip the scales of power. As the words touch individuals in the crowd, Lee casts light on their faces, as if they externally register an inner awakening. We see into a series of black faces recharged by the thrilling notion that they can take control of their destiny. The forces outside of the club, overtly in the case of the police and semi-covertly in the case of the Klan, are doing everything they can to taint this event and prevent it from even occurring. For Lee, radicalism is contextual.
In stark contrast, Lee uses an inverse moment for the Klan initiation during the film's climax. He shows the misplaced yearning in Klansmen and their associates - as they're feverishly watching, hooting and hollering along to D.W Griffiths deeply disturbing "The Birth of a Nation," - we're watching the historically privileged claim the narrative of the disenfranchised. Griffiths reinforces dehumanised stereotypes and effectively weaponises prejudices in the most epic cinematic proportions of his day. In their fever, seen panning through the crowd, like the view one would imagine seeing at pigs gorging at a trough.
Towards the end of BlacKKKlansman, there’s a montage that transitions from the events portrayed in the movie to the modern day. It’s not as if Lee lacked subtlety before this, but it’s clear he holds real concerns about how little we’ve advanced, despite the pretense that we’ve moved forward as a society. The film transitions from the narrative feature into news footage of tiki-torch carrying white supremacists in Virginia in 2018, then into protestors being mowed down by kamikaze drivers. It was so telling that the large Sydney Film Festival audience in the three thousand seat State Theatre, who had been laughing in all the right places up until that point, were stunned into silence.
There’s a strange dissociative instinct in Australian audiences. As I reflect on Lee’s bludgeoning quality here, ramming home the ‘matter of fact’ racism that continues to exist - and now is essentially endorsed by their president - I have to wonder what percentage of the festival audience here blatantly ignores the institutional racism that’s ongoing in Australia? What percentage of the audience wants to laugh at the drama of American politics and pretend that our Government is less guilty? In "BlackKKlansman" Lee gives a dissertation on the potency of satire before hitting the audience with a K.O. It's a movie "rope a dope," from the canvas look up and Spike Lee is daring us to wake up. The rotten core of the land of the free is quietly bubbling beneath the surface of the land down under.
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Screenwriter: Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.