ON IN CINEMAS
BlacKkKlansman (2018) directed by Spike Lee
A true story of infiltrating the KKK
Spike Lee’s film is based on the autobiographical novel by Ron Sallworth, who is played here by John David Washington. The story begins in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s, when Sallworth becomes the first black cop in the city. He is initially assigned to a rather dull shift in the police records office, where he has to put up with the casual racism of his colleague Andy Landers (Frederick Weller). He is then transferred to undercover work, where his first task is to infiltrate a student rally held by black rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). While attending the rally, he meets the beautiful Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). He decides to pursue dating her despite the risk of his cover being compromised.
Sometime later, while he sits in his office reading a newspaper, he spots a recruiting advertisement for the KKK. He decides to call the number and, upon reaching the Klan’s local leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), decides to pretend to be a white man interested in joining up. Breachway falls for the deception and decides to invite him to a recruitment meeting. However, there is one small, obvious problem: the colour of Sallworth’s skin.
The undercover team decides to assign a white, Jewish officer named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate Sallworth for the face-to-face meeting. Despite Breachway’s lieutenant Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) harbouring some suspicions about this prospective new member, he ultimately passes the recruitment process. However, as the undercover team gain Breachway’s trust and get ever closer to a meeting with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), both Sallworth’s romance with Dumas and Kendrickson’s burgeoning doubts about Zimmerman threaten to derail their operation.
Watch a trailer:
Spike Lee becomes (all too) relevant again
BlacKkKlansman has been heralded as a return to form for director Spike Lee. To be fair, it doesn’t quite match the effervescent brilliance and confrontational energy of his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. With age and experience, however, Lee has clearly become a more deliberate, poised and finely-tuned filmmaker. Don’t get me wrong; there certainly are memorably flashy moments here - for instance, a discussion between Sallworth and Dumas about blaxploitation films is accompanied by cutaways to the films’ iconic posters. However, the overall style is that of a relatively conventional undercover cop thriller, albeit with some stark polemical imagery and (from the narrative’s perspective, quite righteously condemned) displays of racism throughout.
Lee bookends the film with two telling pieces of archive footage. At the beginning, we see an epic shot from Gone with the Wind, a Hollywood classic accused of romanticising slavery in the Deep South during the American Civil War. At the end, we are shown harrowing real-life footage of the 2017 confrontations between white supremacists and anti-fascist activists in Charlottesville, which resulted in the tragic death of Heather Heyer from a hit-and-run car attack. They represent two diametrically contrasting viewpoints, one filled with misplaced patriotic nostalgia and the other with the ugly reality of unchecked hatred.
The bulk of the film concentrates on character interactions and the inherent suspense of deception. The most compelling onscreen relationships here are between Sallworth and Dumas, and between Sallworth and Zimmerman. In both cases, these are inherently complicated by fundamental differences in approach towards a shared viewpoint. Whereas Dumas and her radical brothers and sisters believe that the white-controlled establishment is the enemy of the black race, Sallworth is an advocate for changing it from within. Whereas Sallworth sees his infiltration of the KKK by telephone as a personal crusade, Zimmerman (who, while Jewish, confesses himself to be only a lukewarm adherent) sees it more as a job - and a dangerous one at that. While their fragile alliances risk fracturing at any moment, the film’s overall message at heart is one of the necessity of good people to come together for the common cause despite their differences.
This is where Lee has moved on from the angry howl of despair that was Do the Right Thing; whereas that film degenerated into a hopeless explosion of polarised animosity, this one offers a hint of a way forward. Even its dark endnote reference to Charlottesville serves as a rallying point exclamation mark which highlights the need to unite against a new rising tide of bigotry.
John David Washington (son of Denzel) turns in an excellent, livewire and even surprisingly funny performance as the afroed Sallworth. Once again, Adam Driver plays one of those unassuming, laconic guy-next-door types who has hidden depths which become apparent over time. While he’s not exactly a conventional movie star in terms of looks and onscreen manner, he’s always strangely, subtly compelling to watch. Laura Harrier is passionate and charmingly sexy as Sallworth’s Pam Grier-alike girlfriend. On the other hand, I never quite bought Topher Grace as David Duke; he comes across more like a comedically nerdish office supplies salesman than an ominous white supremacist leader. I thought Jasper Pääkkönen conveyed a considerably more effective sense of menace as the paranoid, zealously fanatical Kendrickson. There are also notable cameos by Alec Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.
While BlacKkKlansman has its minor faults (the occasionally over-obvious symbolism and Grace’s underwhelming presence), it tells a truly eye-opening and socially important tale in a manner which entertains and disturbs in equal measure. Spike Lee has returned to relevance - and not a moment too soon.
Runtime: 135 mins
Dir: Spike Lee
Script: Charles Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmot, Spike Lee, based on the memoirs of Ron Sallworth
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Robert John Burke, Frederick Weller, Corey Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte