For much of its runtime, Spike Lee’s BlackKKlansman plays as a mid-tier, blackly comic drama ought to. It is undemanding, funny and worthy. But then comes the sting, a punishing final third sickens the soul before a closing bite breaks the heart.
On the blurb of Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Blank Klansman, upon which Lee’s film is based, Jordan Peele declares himself to be obsessed with its remarkable true story and it’s not hard to see why. The Get Out writer-director is among the producers of this feature adaptation, which shares the same eye for Trump-era social satire as his previous, Oscar-winning work. From the mock infomercial introduction – featuring a cameoing Alec Baldwin as dreadful doctor Kennebrew Beauregard: ‘my friends, we are under attack’ – to the wryly naive assertion at one point that America would never elect a President as ignorant and xenophobic as Grand Wizard David Duke, the film is littered with niggles at present day politics through the brown hued lens of 1979 Colorado Springs. When both epochs are paralleled too with Griffith’s 1915 propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, a depressing picture is painted.
John David Washington plays Stallworth, who is recruited as the first black officer in a police department viewed by the local minority population as being racist and violent. Whatever their reputation, the so-called Colorado Springs ‘pigs’ has nothing on the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan when it comes to bigotry. Though Stallworth is dumped in the station’s records office, he quickly rises to prominence with an audacious plot to infiltrate the supremacist brothers. Responding to an ad in the local paper, Stallworth imitates a white man on the phone to work his way into the KKK, sending in a Caucasian doppelgänger – Adam Driver’s Detective Flip Zimmerman – as his man on the ground. A Jew, Zimmerman has equal right to fury.
Lee’s oeuvre has long been devoted to the cause of ‘black power’ through an exposé of the very worst of history’s segregational intolerance. To that end, this is familiar ground for the Malcolm X director. A sense for moral righteousness is palpable in the film, elevated in the comparability of heroes who are easy to root for against villains who are easy to hate. Topher Grace’s David Duke is as slimy as they come, whilst Jasper Pääkkönen is an anti-Semitic psychopath of little nuance. Best served in Lee’s script, co-written with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, is Driver, whose performance delves into avenues of depth and restraint not always apparent elsewhere.
More exquisite is the subtle evocation of the film’s era through an on point soundtrack, comprising Prince, James Brown and The Temptations, and brown-hued cinemascope. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin does well to capture the period but it is in the perfect production and costume design of the film that an absorbing landscape is realised. Seventies blaxploitation is, furthermore, channelled visually in genre-appropriate camerawork and vocally through knowing discussions of Shaft and SuperFly. There’s a sadness in one scene as Ron asks his date Patrice – president of the black student union at Colorado College – if they have to talk politics and she responds ‘what’s more important?’ There is a stolen culture here.
As the film reaches its close, downbeat realism consumes hopes of triumphant closure, before one final montage devastates. Its a strong film that captures both wit and woe.