Spike Lee is a director who’s not afraid to tackle tough issues in ways that are both provocative and highly entertaining. And the new “Spike Lee Joint”, his cheeky moniker for his films, sees him at the top of his game, fire in his belly, calling the US to account with filmic flair, ineffable cool and righteous anger.
Lee has dealt with America’s race issues before, notably in Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X and Bamboozled. Perhaps more than those, BlacKkKlansman is powerfully of the moment, touching on the resurgence of the white supremacist movement in the US during the Trump presidency. While it explicitly shows Charlottesville as a devastating coda, last year’s deadly fascist rally casts a shadow over the entire film.
It’s set in the early 1970s, and based on a true story that beggars belief, not least because of the courage and audacity involved when two undercover cops – one black, one Jewish – decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. The why is obvious, the how altogether more mind-boggling.
When Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, he doesn’t rest on his laurels and makes an almost immediate request for promotion to undercover detective. Much to his surprise he gets it, though not, initially, in the way he might like.
His first assignment is to spy on an event organised by the local black student union, in which the controversial activist Stokely Carmichael gives a clandestine speech on black power. Ron’s black sisters and brothers, including Patrice (Laura Harrier), the student president he’s taken a shine to, would be none too happy if they found out.
This sequence offers a rare moment of celebration in the film, a mixture of stirring rhetoric, striking compositions – Lee creating a moving panoply of rapt young faces – and seductive cool, as Ron then accompanies Patrice to a soul club. The deliberate contrast that Lee is establishing with the bigoted whites outside the door, including certain cops, makes that hate as inexplicable as it is despicable.
Ron’s police chief is at least even-handed. And the newbie is next given permission to lead his own undercover operation – this time against the Ku Klux Klan.
He makes first contact by posing as a white racist on the telephone, using what he calls his best “King’s English”. But he obviously can’t do the face to face himself. Enter experienced new partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who as a Jew falls into the second most hated category for the KKK. But the African American quips that, “With the right white man we can do anything.” Replacing the Star of David around his neck for a wire, Flip goes into the field.
Adapting Stallworth’s book Black Klansman, Lee offers a film that is at once gripping, disturbing and hilarious. There’s nail-biting tension, with Flip’s cover constantly in danger of being blown, and as the Klan plans a bomb attack; sadness and discomfort, in the torrent of racist invective and when veteran actor Harry Belafonte relates the terrible true story of a lynching; and buddy movie camaraderie between the wise-cracking Washington and deliciously dry Driver.
Most pointedly, there’s satire, at the expense of the Klan’s “Grand Wizard” David Duke, seen trying to turn the KKK into a legitimate political organisation. As one of Ron’s colleagues puts it, “politics is another way to sell hate.” Topher Grace, an actor who’s a dab hand at weasels, plays Duke as a dangerous buffoon. The associations between he and Trump – including the same slogan, America First – are quite deliberate.
Photos: David Lee/Focus Features
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald