As the opening credits announce, Spike Lee’s latest joint is based on “Some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”. It follows the extraordinary work of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American to work for the Colorado Police Department. As if that wasn’t enough of an achievement, Ron managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee documents the two key strands of the case: Ron plays himself talking on the phone, while Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays the role in person at Klan meetings.
Both leads are magnificent. Driver continues to show why he’s one of the finest actors working today with an unassuming but powerful turn. Having never really considered his Jewish identity, spending time with stomach-curdlingly despicable fascists opens Flip’s eyes, and he begins to ponder what it means to be Jewish.
The star is easily Ron Stallworth though, and John David Washington dominates the film with a larger-than-life performance. Charismatic, passionate and ridiculously brave, he’s the voice of reason throughout. Surrounded by racists on one side and rightfully angry civil rights activists on the other, Stallworth is calm, resilient and makes a difference.
Spike Lee said he wanted to make a contemporary period film. And BlacKkKlansman is unashamedly self-aware, not only of the era in which it is set, but also of the era in which it has been made. Whether it’s talk of returning the US to its former greatness or chants of “America First”, Lee expertly reflects the issues of today for comedic effect, but with an undercurrent of startling reality.
It’s that tonal balance, which Lee achieves perfectly, that makes the film work so well. It is seriously, seriously funny, poking fun at Neo-Nazi’s past and present with just the right amount of ridicule. But the severity of the subject matter is not lost on him either. His portrayal of discrimination and hate is authentic and pulls no punches. While the film delivers its message strongly throughout, particularly with a clever bit of connective tissue which closes the movie and drives home just how current the issues on screen really are.
Perhaps the smartest thing Spike Lee has done here is package this incredibly important film into an engaging, enjoyable and quite poppy two-and-a-bit hours. This is not a lecture. Nor is it entirely about the message. On the surface this is just an entertaining retelling of an extraordinary tale, which despite its indictment of society at the time, maintains the inherently cool nature of the 70s, crafted to perfection with superb costumes and great music. But, the message is infused throughout, which is as impactful a way as any to make a point.
Provocative, inspiring and deeply funny, BlacKkKlansman is essential viewing. A marvellous period piece which is as contemporary as any film in 2018, you’ve done it again, Spike.