I finally made time to catch Spike Lee’s latest. The trailers have been selling it as something like a buddy cop comedy based on an incredible true story, but while the movie is very entertaining and imbued with a great dose of humour, Lee’s ambition goes much further than that.
The story is set in the 1970s and follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an idealistic young man who becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, with the ambition of becoming a detective. At first he languishes in a deadly dull job at the records room, but soon he’s given a chance to go undercover and observe a speech by the civil rights activist and a proponent of Black Power. There he meets and takes a shine to Patrice (Laura Harrier), who turns out to be the president of the black student union at the local college. Naturally, Ron doesn’t mention his real job to her.
Ron’s efforts land him in the intelligence section, where the story really kicks off. One day, spotting a newspaper ad inviting people to join the local branch of Ku Klax Klan, Ron impulsively decides to give the KKK a call, pretending to be a white man and spouting all sorts of convincing racist garbage. This sets in motion a scheme where Ron converses with the Klan over the phone, while his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a white Jewish cop, becomes Ron’s “face” who gets to attend the KKK meetings. Can the two successfully keep up the charade without slipping and prevent an act of violence the Klan is about to unleash?
While Washington is excellent and makes for an engaging lead, I found Driver’s Flip a more interesting character. Perhaps inevitably so since Flip has the task of interacting with the KKK face-to-face and his scenes in the Klan’s nest are always full of nerve-wracking tension, especially after one unhinged redneck instantly pegs him as Jewish. Having never given much thought to his Jewishness, and having an option of “passing”, Flip can’t help but think about his heritage all the time after his experiences with the KKK. While Ron’s phone conversations with the Klan are often mined for humour and the audience can laugh at the absurdity of a black man pretending to be an eager recruit, Flip’s scenes are uniformly awful to watch. This juxtaposition of the absurd and dangerous extends to the general portrayal of the KKK, who are comically inept and ridiculous one moment and menacing the next.
Overall though the film is not particularly character-driven and aims for more than just telling Ron’s story. Its look at the racist language and brutality is truly unflinching; Lee also explores the ways the mass media and film in particular helped to perpetuate the racist attitudes throughout the decades (touching on Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation), and examines the ideologies of White Power and Black Power. Films set in an earlier era can often leave the viewer with a nice complacent feeling of “well things are so much better now”, but Lee doesn’t give the audience this comfort by concluding the movie with the hard-hitting real-life footage of the recent events.
This ambition to cover this much ground makes BlacKkKlansman maybe a tad messy and its romantic subplot in particular feels undercooked (if I had a dollar for every movie with an undercooked romance I’d be sitting on a pile of money). All in all though it mixes social commentary and entertainment in a very impressive manner, while the lead and supporting cast all turn in impeccable performances.