After last week’s disappointing Bohemian Rhapsody, I was ready for a better Best Picture nominee to review. So, I went for one that I’ve been looking forward for ages. Any story that sounds so insane yet is based on a real-life event is something you just have to watch, right? Plus, and without wanting to prove just how superficial I really am, Adam Driver is looking good in that trailer. I admit that I kind of lost interest thanks to his nipple-height trousers from that scene in The Last Jedi but the minute I saw him in a plaid shirt I was back. And it’s great that he’s been given a nomination for his role here. Hell, it’s great that this film got a Best Picture nomination. Not only because I get an excuse to watch it but also because of the lack of recognition for If Only Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins obviously killed with Moonlight but the Academy have done the least possible for his latest film. Neither the director or the film are being recognised. I know I haven’t seen it yet but everything I’ve seen leads me to believe it deserves a place. Especially now I’ve seen Bohemian Rhapsody. But we can’t have everything.
BlacKkKlansman is loosely based on the real-life story of Colorado Spring’s first black policeman joining the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s one of those ‘so strange it must be true’ stories that Spike Lee uses as part of his commentary on modern society. The film is produced by the team who brought us last year’s Best Picture nominee Get Out, which should go someway to telling you what you’re in for. BlacKkKlansman is a funny film but, at the same time, it doesn’t pull its punches. It’s a hard-hitting film that has a lot to say about America. And it feels so fresh and entertaining.
The story takes us back to the 70s and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hired as the police department’s first black officer. He is initially put into the records room where he faces discrimination from his fellow officers. After he successfully works an undercover operation at a rally organised by the black student union, Ron is reassigned to intelligence. After seeing an advert in the local newspaper, he rings the local branch of the KKK and asks to join. His phone calls with the head of the chapter go well so Ron sends his fellow officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), in his place. Between them, the pair infiltrate the Klan and help prevent a series of demonstrations taking place. All whilst Ron becomes quite chummy with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
Although, I guess the crowning moment of the film is after the story has been told and Lee cuts to video footage of modern-day far-right violence. Included are clips from Charlottesville in 2017 and Trump proclaiming there were “bad people” on both sides. It is the culmination of everything he has been trying to do with this absurd moment of American history. As much as we like to think we’ve moved on, nothing has changed in the past 40 years or so. Earlier in the film, Ron states that America would “never elect somebody like David Duke”. It’s not mean to be a subtle line: this is Lee stating exactly what he’s doing. This is an indictment of Donald Trump and the group of far-right people using him as an icon for racially motivated violence. To further prove this point, perhaps, Alec Baldwin, recently praised for his SNL impersonation of the President, opens the film as a white-power extremist.
Contrasting with its absurdist story, BlacKkKlansman is a hard-hitting film that is perfectly balanced on all fronts. Lee blends the comedy and the drama so he manages to elicit both laughs and shocks from the audience. It blends fact and fiction with the changes that Lee has made to Stallworth’s story. It blends the past and the present. This is a film that pushes the dual identities of itself. We see Ron caught in the middle of everything. Playing a black police officer who believes most of his coworkers are good people but understanding that there are those who abuse their position. During his first undercover operation, Ron connects with the president of the black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Whilst Ron can see things from her perspective, he also sees the danger of taking things too far on either side. Something Lee nods to later as he juxtaposes chants of “white power” with those of “black power”. A moment that both promotes caution and champions power to all.
There is so much greatness in BlacKkKlansman that it is easy to miss what’s going on thanks to the sheer weirdness of the real story at the centre. This is a film about mirroring and double identity that allows Lee to present the idea that the past and the present aren’t as far apart as we’d like them to be. I know there has been criticism of Lee because of his portrayal of police officers as heroes but, as Lee himself has argued, not all policemen are evil. I think he has picked his battle well and has managed to show the complex nature of everything. Every side has their problems but the overall message is one that promotes tolerance. And the fact that it does so with a commanding cast and a memorable and funny narrative just makes the message all the clearer. So, who cares if Spike Lee has messed with history a bit? It adds power to the message that the white officer taking Ron’s place is Jewish, particularly in today’s climate. Every change made here has been made to promote the central message and that message is presented in a slick manner. This is definitely one of Lee’s strongest films in years.