Spike Lee’s grotesque comic thriller BlacKkKlansman would appear to uphold the truism that art flourishes under hostile conditions. But then when has the US not been hostile to African-Americans? Coverage of the movie has been split between those who think Lee’s time has come round again now that there’s a racist in the White House, and those who insist he was correct to argue as far back as the devastating 2000 satire Bamboozled that racism was hiding in plain sight all along. The new film is typically uneven but as with every high point – Bamboozled, Do the Right Thing, the documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke – Lee’s motivating anger produces a unique, electrifying charge.
BlacKkKlansman is inspired by actual events – or, as the opening titles put it, “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” It is early-1970s Colorado Springs and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, charismatic son of Denzel) is a rookie detective who phones the Ku Klux Klan with a view to infiltrating the group. Ron passes himself off as a cheerleader for white supremacy, but meeting in person is problematic given that he is African-American. Ron’s colleague, Flip (Adam Driver), agrees to go along and pose as him, which makes one wonder why Flip doesn’t just take control of phone duties too; he is certainly no slouch when it comes to improvising in character as a rabid racist. The answer, of course, is that it would cost the film its central comic device: Ron’s cosy chit-chats with the Klan’s oblivious Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), where the pair bill and coo like late-night lovebirds. As a prank, these heart-to-hearts are amusing but no more dramatically complex on their fourth or fifth go round than an episode of Punk’d.
There’s an added irony to Flip’s involvement: only through Ron’s encouragement does he realise that he, as a Jew, has skin in the game. It’s satisfying to see the shared interests of Jewish and African-American communities being dramatised by a director striving, as he did in Get on the Bus, to put some distance between himself and the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues.
As is Lee’s way, instances of depth and clarity co-exist alongside baffling choices. There’s a ferocious take-down of the silent era civil war epic The Birth of a Nation but also a pointless slideshow of Blaxploitation posters. A scene at the Klan’s shooting range withholds cleverly until the last possible moment the revelation of what the members have been using for target practice. On the other hand, none of the men who admire Flip’s sharp-shooting bother to ask why it was that he couldn’t hit a car at close range earlier on. We know, as they do not, that he missed it deliberately because Ron was driving. It’s all very well having four screenwriters on the movie but it would be nice to feel they’d read one another’s contributions.
The script is peppered with phrases revitalised since Trump’s ascendancy – Duke toasts “America first” and wants the country “to achieve greatness again”. A cop remarks that the US would “never elect someone like David Duke”, and Lee leaves a pause for our rueful laughter. There’s no shortage of chances to do the hindsight thing.
Lee can’t resist going for easy chuckles – there’s comic capital in the terms of Klan membership (“Robes and hoods not included”) and in the thug who, suspecting Flip is Jewish, asks if he’s “circumstanced”. But the end of the film justifies these means, freezing any laughter in our throats. The picture is framed as a tale of two Trumps. It opens with some symbolic casting – Alec Baldwin, who portrayed the president on Saturday Night Live, plays a fictional white supremacist – and closes with the real Trump singling out the “very fine people” at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, before we see James Alex Fields ploughing his car into anti-racist demonstrators. (The film is dedicated – “Rest in Power” – to Heather Heyer, who was killed in the attack.) Hard as it is to watch, the footage underlines the rage and relevance of a movie that might have been tighter but could scarcely be any more necessary.
dir: Spike Lee
This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad