REVIEW: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’

The new Spike Lee joint is pretty bizarre and definitely amazing. John David Washington stars as Detective Ron Stallworth, the black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. True story, bro.

The film, which takes place in Colorado Springs in the 1970s, is so much of everything. There’s this comical but very serious contrast of telling the story from the perspective of the local KKK group, set against the very real struggle of black people and the Black Panthers fighting for them. Side by side.

How does Stallworth, this black man in recently de-segregated America, navigate being the first of his race to work as a police officer in Colorado Springs? How do his colleagues receive him, and how do they interact with him? He is very aware of the situation, and perhaps as a survival default setting, chooses to be unconcerned by whether or not he is accepted, and instead focusses on doing the job he’s always wanted to do: protect and serve the people. But then how do his people feel about him doing that, given their numerous negative experiences with racist cops? How does he handle all of this?

I know that I’m asking a lot of questions, and I am going to get to the point, but it’s important to understand the complex issues of the time and circumstance in which Stallworth finds himself, something put across well in this motion picture.

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth BlacKkKlansman
John David Washington as Ron Stallworth. © Focus Features/Universal Pictures

Produced by Lee, Sean McKittrick (Donnie Darko), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Raymond Mansfield, Shaun Redick and Jason Blum (The Purge, Paranormal Activity), they really put together something that is marvellous and excellent in many ways. A film is very well done when you can believe wholeheartedly and, more importantly, unconsciously that it is set in a certain time, and I forgot that it was “set” in the 70s almost instantly. The production design (Curt Beech), costume design (Marci Rodgers), cinematography (Chayse Irvin) are all stellar, and, from the cast, even down to the accents and rhetoric.

Terence Blanchard wrote a score that isn’t just a regurgitation of the style from that time, or the television themes; it’s a fresh take on it. And then I heard a piece that reminded me of Prince, and lo and behold, at the end of the credits, there I saw his name. Beautiful touch.

Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee, and edited by Barry Alexander Brown (Malcolm X), the story moves well and doesn’t linger too long, getting straight to the point, but still delves deep enough to give us more insight into the mindset and motives of each character.

On the subject of characters and the actors who play them, I love it when filmmakers take a chance on lesser-known faces to play the lead; something I wish was done more. Audiences, at least ones passionate about cinema, are not as stupid as studios may make us out to be. It’s nice to see what someone else can do, especially, as in this case, when they show why they won the role in the first place – again, I forgot that they were acting!

Adam Driver , John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman
Adam Driver (Flip Zimmerman) and Washington (Stallworth). © Focus Features/Universal Pictures

John David Washington, a former American football player, may have acting in his blood, but you wouldn’t know it. No, that’s not an insult, but rather a credit to his own abilities, which give him his own name. It’s an outstanding performance by him, as well as Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Logan Lucky), who plays his partner Det. Flip Zimmerman.

Other notable performances come from Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) and Topher Grace, who portray Kuame Ture and David Duke, respectively. I got chills during Kuame’s speech at the Panther meeting. Not only because of the eloquent and powerful speech itself, but because of Hawkins’ diction and dedication to the representation of his character, which was spot on. He’s a highlight and he only appears in the film once. Incredible. And Grace, it’s hard to not think of That 70’s Show when you see him (must have got him this gig, clearly experienced in the decade), but he is such a great actor and didn’t disappoint in his role as the former Grand Wizard of the KKK.

It really is a ridiculous story, even more so when you remember that it is based on a true one. The wackiness is there, the sheer weight of the issues that have severely affected black people and continue to affect them to this day – it’s all there. Beautifully woven and passionately delivered. Even the crazy white supremacist parts.

Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman
Topher Grace as David Duke. © Focus Features/Universal Pictures

Now, onto the more pertinent matters.

BlacKkKlansman (wonderful branding, I have to say) testifies that the Black experience is not something to be swept under the rug, or spoken of in hushed tones. It’s not fables. The injustices that black people have faced are not ancient history, not even recent (as you’ll find the 1970s absolutely is) – but very present. This film sheds a very important light on the reality, while uplifting the victims, identifying the perpetrators and ‘perpetuators’, if you will, and leaving it up to the viewer to decide which side of history they would rather be on.

One thing I did NOT like, though I understand its purpose, was the excessive use of slurs. I heard pretty much every derogatory name you could call a black person, and it really did grate with me. I am glad that it’s in there, as an authentic portrayal of the language used at the time, and of the hatred that resided in the hearts of those who at every moment were compelled to use it… I just felt a little disgruntled, which is to be expected.

Anyway, speaking as someone who watched this film as the only black person in the audience (man, that was a trip), it was a little awkward, but in a good way. The truth is often very uncomfortable. And these things, relevant as ever, need to be addressed and talked about.

BlacKkKlansman is out now in UK cinemas.

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