Films can be viewed very differently, especially when put into context by the time that they are released. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has hit at exactly the right time and in mixing the contemporary with the 1970s, it looks back and resonates forward at the same time. It is no coincidence that BlacKkKlansman has been released on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville.
So much of the events and sentiments are equivocal to the events that appear in today’s news cycles, and it is because of this that makes it all the more shocking and hits with a greater weight than if that wasn’t the case. Produced (and offered to Spike Lee) by Jordan Peele, the political tones are ever present and builds on the eye-opening work that Peele himself brought to the attention of the masses with Get Out.
Adapted from Ron Stallworth’s memoir of the same name, with writing credits for Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron (John David Washington, son of Denzel and regular on HBO’s Ballers) as he becomes the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs police force. He finds his way in this new, and sometimes hostile, environment and manages to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Alongside his sterling police work Ron works his way into the life of Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the Colorado College Black Student union and a vociferous political activist.
The ludicrous situation of an African-American contacting the local KKK chapter, talking a good game and ingratiating himself with them is where all the fun begins, and there is a lot of humour in this that I wasn’t expecting. Allayed with the hard themes on show, it makes the levity all the more effective, and needed. With Ron’s physical appearance not deemed acceptable to the KKK it is entrusted to another detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take Ron’s place in the face to face meet ups and so begins the split personality of Ron and Ron, the voice and the face. Both Washington and Driver here are superb, both revelling in the dual roles, coming together as the One Ron but also managing to maintain their own persona outside of the acting. The plot builds to the crescendo at a steady pace, but you never feel bored or lose interest as there is so much machination and intrigue in all the intertwined stories playing out in their own way before they are inevitably drawn together.
I can’t say that I have been the biggest fan of Spike Lee’s work in the past but BlacKkKlansman is a film so rooted in today’s culture and environment that it deserves to be seen and appreciated. The choice to use film rather than digital provides a real 1970s grainy feel to it all and it is a fantastic choice. Spike Lee described BlacKkKlansman as a contemporary period drama and it is such an accurate description: the script could have been talking about the political climate of today, not 40 years ago and I don’t think that this was missed by anyone watching. Add to that the real gut-punch ending and this feels more and more like an important film for anyone of a decent nature to sit up and pay attention to.
There is so much to talk about with this film but I would be doing it a disservice in trying to articulate it here. Go see it in the cinema, experience it for yourself: BlacKkKlansman isn’t just one of the best films of the year, it is poignant and right on the money for the current political climate, like so much of Spike Lee’s work in the past.
I was fortunate enough to watch a satellite link Q&A with Spike Lee from the BFI afterwards and it was so insightful. Listening to the man talk about his methods and processes and the effects that film-making can have, the responsibility of the film-maker to be careful what message you send out was truly thought provoking. The linking of Birth of a Nation to the story within BlacKkKlansman tying it back to reality gives this film a sense of weight and depth that it never could achieve with fiction alone. And the ending footage? Being brought right back to the present, the realisation (if you didn’t already know) about this kind of behaviour still going on in today’s society and being advocated and empowered by those in power.