BlacKkKlansman is based on the story of Ron Stallworth, a black police-officer in Colorado, who, in the ’70s, became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth (John David Washington) joins the Colorado Springs police force following an affirmative action-inspired recruitment drive. Bored beyond measure by the workings of the records room, he’s asked by the chief to attend a rally held by Colorado University’s Black Students’ Union, organised by Patrice (Laura Harrier). Promoted to the Intelligence division, Stallworth finds an advert for the local chapter of the KKK in his newspaper, and phones the number. He adopts the register of a white man over the phone, and he so convinces his interlocutor that he’s invited to join ‘the organisation’ immediately. A plan is hatched to infiltrate the group and report on their activities, using Stallworth’s colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his white stand-in.
What’s most impressive in Spike Lee’s newest joint is how beautifully the formal aspects and the polemical thrust of the picture marry into a coherent shape. BlacKkKlansman is not a ‘comedy’ in any meaningful way, other than that it contains moments of hilarity. This is built into the movie’s premise; the story itself is packed with absurdity, so a ‘realist’ version of it would end up being funny anyway. The tone dances as nimbly as the narrative does: from joyous levity (a splendid dance sequence being the high point) to condemnatory seriousness, as the story moves from police procedural to a searing critique of the ineradicability of racism from American society.
Cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s 35mm photography lends BlacKkKlansman the look of a ’70s movie, and Spike Lee’s repertoire of shots, camera techniques, and editing strategies — his visual style — puts the period gloss to gorgeous and sophisticated use. All of the Lee signatures are out in force: the repeat cue jump-cut, emphasising the importance of a single action; the precise framing of portraits, tight close-ups where they might not be expected; and best of all, the floating dolly shot, which makes the character in the frame glide towards the camera, as if unmoored and apart from the world in which they exist.
Lee is, of course, an avid cinephile, and so central to BlacKkKlansman’s discourse is how cinema has been used by racists as a tool. The film opens with a shot from Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939). More powerfully, in a Klan meeting, the members watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), all the while eating popcorn, and chanting, and laughing, and taking giddy delight in the cruelties flickering before them. That film inspired a resurgence of the KKK; black Americans were killed because of a piece of celluloid. This is represented here by a fictional eyewitness (played by Harry Belafonte) to the very real lynching of Jesse Washington, which is recounted before the Black Students’ Union, with pictures of the event itself. Lee borrows from Griffith’s filmmaking toolkit and cross-cuts between these events, and it’s a sublime act. The juxtaposition seems to say: For all the refinement of the camera, the editing, the cinematic grammar of Birth of a Nation, here is the other, darker truth of its legacy, in plain, static, true photographs.
There are a few misjudgements in BlacKkKlansman which threaten, at intervals, to cancel out some of its excellence. Lee doesn’t shy away from calling out institutional racism in the police force for which Stallworth works, but the vituperative, menacing, racist cop Landers (Frederick Weller) feels unconvincing. Likewise, the depiction of the Klan is all the more unnerving because some of them are psychopathic and some of them are incredibly boring and banal — none more so than the ‘Grand Wizard’, David Duke himself, in a very well-judged performance by Topher Grace — except for Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), who is so dense and inarticulate that his every gesture and sentence almost capsizes the carefully modulated tone of unease set-up during the Klan meetings. It’s an ill-advised character, poorly written, and very badly acted.
And yet, these complaints seem to fade away slightly when considered in relation to BlacKkKlansman’s two extraordinary endings. Lee has always had a penchant for strong, emotionally resonant conclusions: from the calls of “Wake up!” in School Daze (1988); the aftermath of the riot in Do The Right Thing (1989); to the heartbreaking distance between the desired and the real in the hugely undervalued He Got Game (1998). (To say nothing of the moving denouements of Mo’ Better Blues , 25th Hour , and Chi-Raq .) His latest evinces that tendency with aplomb, and serves as a reminder of a fact that has been true a long time, but still needs repeating: Spike Lee is one of the great film artists.
Image Credit: Universal Pictures