First up, let me level with you all…
This is the first Spike Lee movie I ever got round to seeing. I know, I know! Legitimately indefensible, but in an attempted defence, when Lee rose to prominence in the 90’s and back then, if it wasn’t monsters, aliens or explosions it never got a look in from the younger me.
So that means no Malcolm X, no Do The Right Thing and even no Mo’ Better Blues (No Better Blues?). Shocking, right? Jesus Christ, I haven’t even seen The Inside Man or the dodgy Oldboy remake, so when BlacKkKlansman was released I hopped off to the cinema and finally had a long overdue chance to rectify this grave injustice. Boy, did I pick a good one to start with.
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He’s ambitious, smart and wants to make a difference so despite facing racial discrimination from his fellow officers he also has a fierce desire to enforce the law for everybody – especially the black community. Having his initial request to be moved to undercover duty go sour Ron meets activist Patrice Dumas who opens his eyes to some harsh truths. Eventually Ron finds himself transferred to the Intelligence Divison and armed with the resources, the knowledge and the ability to right some major wrongs he obviously, he rings up the Klu Klux Klan and requests to be a member over the phone in order to expose the racist organization. Now, not exactly being of the caucasian persuasion proves to be somewhat problematic so he teams up with fellow detective Flip Zimmerman to go undercover in a somewhat farcical yet very dangerous scenario. Ron will portray himself when contacting the various Klan members on the phone – due to the fact that he doesn’t “sound black” – while Flip portrays “Ron” in person and between the two of them, build trust while infiltrating the infamous order of white supremacists; not exactly easy when you consider that Flip is Jewish.
Despite it’s obviously heavy nature, Lee keeps the whole movie surprisingly light on it’s feet and it crackles with the same kind of fast paced intelligence you’d get from a perky heist movie. Lots of natural humor is drawn from the ludicrous nature of the operation and the story nimbly hops from broad comedy (Ron quizzing a grand high wizard about his knowledge of African American social behaviour) to palm moistening tense scenes of the duo desperately trying not to be found out. Yet the real genius of this movie is the perfectly judged gut punches littered throughout the film; be it the faintly dream like close ups of students hearing an enpowering speech from an outspoken black activist, to the stomach churning sight of Klan members braying and cheering at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation juxtaposed to an old man telling teens about the lynching of a mental disabled teenager during his youth. Lee never lets us forget what this movie is really about, never letting things ever become “safe” right up to it’s crushing final shot; Ron’s fight is far from over because racism is still horribly prevalent TODAY and the film illustrates this with news footage depressingly dated as barely months before BlacKkKlansman made it’s bow in the multiplexes.
The performances are strong and the three leads of John David Washington, Adam Driver and Laura Harrier (virtually and impressively unrecognisable from her portrayal as the love interest from Spider-Man: Homecoming) all nail the target even though you never really even get a handle on Ron as an actual person beyond his job; the funny bits are funny, the movie fully embraces the wackiness of the central concept (lest we forget, this is a fucking true story), the darker bits are truly moving and it’s legitimately great to see an old master back in great form (film studio Blumhouse managed a similar trick with M. Night Shyamalan a couple of years ago). BlacKkKlansman will go down as one of the most important releases of the year, especially seeing as it deals with issues that are just as relevant now as they were back then.
I suppose I better catch up on my Spike Lee joints pretty sharpish…