Well, this unusual subject is a very pleasant surprise. After the Cannes Festival premier I’d heard through the grapevine co-writer-director Spike Lee was ‘back on form’, but his film is a lot more than a personal success.
The plot is based on a true story, how a black cop infiltrated the KKK, it’s biographical. The film’s story, set in the ’70s, has Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) completing his job interview to become the first black cop in the Colorado Springs police department, a momentous occasion, and one fraught with confrontational racist cops.
The real-life Ron Stallworth on whose book the film is based, said:
“The film is a good portrayal of the actual events that took place. It happened exactly as it is portrayed, with some minor creative license. It speaks to the idiot in the White House who is responsible for a lot of the racial tension in this country. Spike did a wonderful job weaving the historical context from the confederacy to The Birth of a Nation to Alec Baldwin’s character [in BlacKkKlansman], which was a play on the White Citizens’ Councils from the ’50s and ’60s, to David Duke to Charlottesville to Donald Trump. He used that historical thread very well. The only criticism I had was that I didn’t have an afro like they display in the film. My afro was only about an inch high.”
It gets my four stars because underneath all that send up humour and wink, wink tone, there’s a deadly serious study of racial intolerance and violence that works on a number of levels. I don’t award five stars because the pacing is odd, the dialogue uneven, the music a washout, and except for the lead role, nobody has a backstory. The love interest never develops beyond the love interest.
What is understood, by me at least however, is why everybody is a stereotype. Lee has made a deliberate choice to present his characters almost cartoon-like.
Except for the finale, a chase and an explosion, characters amble from one scene to the next, from one set piece to the next. Lee seems to have shot the film from a comfy recliner while sipping a Mojito, a deliberate choice. Man, it’s so laid back, ya gotta jive to stay alive. And yet it holds together and hits its targets.
Lee gives the film a low-budget look, one camera, actors moving in tight, confined areas, no tracking shots, almost like a television comedy show where a lot of action talks place from a well-used sofa facing the fourth wall.
Lee offers us a reverse good techniques strategy, and manages to get every conceivable white-racist rant and nigger-word played for laughs. You’re kept smiling, and the tension never lessens for over-two hours length.
One of Stallworth’s first tasks is to infiltrate a public appearance in the town by Stokely Carmichael to gauge the militancy of the local black population. We see Carmichael’s rousing Black Power speech in its entirety, the first of many instances in which Lee inserts fictionalized tributes to black history into the comic framework of the film.
At the Carmichael rally Ron Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), an Angela Davis lookalike, and love blossoms. Davis was one of the many female radicals of the day, but here she talks a lot but doesn’t do much more. She acts as his devil’s advocate, causing him to lie about what he does for a living as if a modern day undercover Special Branch cop sleeping with a Ban the Bomb protestor. Once he’s unmasked she says, rightly, “I can’t sleep with the enemy”, and walks away.
Stallworth is a clever, ambitious police officer, keen to do the right thing by his department, a favour to Black Power, and ease his conscience. He offers to investigate the local KKK. Surprisingly his boss agrees. It sounds a good idea; Colorado has had too many fiery crosses lit on too many good folks front lawns. Time to halt the rot.
Putting on a white-man’s voice, he succeeds in contacting the Klan, tripping out a line of racist lingo music to his contact. He’s invited to meet the local group, a bunch of society’s weird and weirder no hopers and indolent losers.
Herein lies the problem. How can a black man gain the company of white supremacists without getting tossed into a river, concrete tied to his feet? Stallworth hits on the idea of sending his cop buddy, Flip (Adam Driver) into the mouth of Hell, an easy going Jew – though not remotely orthodox or much of a believer – who just about looks as if he’s construction worker until he shoots a gun like Wyatt Earp.
To the Klan, Jews are as much loathed as blacks. The plan is laid out: Stallworth does the organising and the phone calls and the oversight from the safety of his departmental desk, when not recording conversations at a distance from his car, a microphone strapped to Flip’s chest. Flip takes the risks, Stallworth takes the kudos.
From then on it’s full tilt into the mind of the Klu Klux Klan – if one can describe blunt force bigotry espoused by racists a ‘mind’. Buffoonery abounds, a KKK plot to initiate race warfare foiled, a KKK member’s overweight wife exploited as if a suicide bomber, and everybody’s plans go awry.
The best one-line ripostes can’t be repeated in print. Nor can some of the documentary retelling of incidents when Lee switches from drama to documentary, in one instance the graphic lynching of an innocent black man by a white mob, told to us by an elderly, thin-voiced Harry Belafonte.
Lee sneaks a lot of contemporary political commentary into the narrative. I’d like to say the device elicited rueful laughter from the multiplex auditorium I was in, but in sorrow, I was one of only three people watching the film.
In the States a $15 million budget, including promotional advertising, grossed to date almost £50 million at the box office, here … not so much. That’s to be expected, but cinemagoers in Scotland will miss out on fine and informative entertainment if they choose another film at their multiplex.
“The people of the United States could never elect someone like David Duke to be president,” says Stallworth. “Coming from a black man, that’s pretty naïve,” answers his white fellow cop.
“BlacKkKlansman” concludes with a series of false endings, including a fantasy scene in a bar of cop camaraderie where the bad cop gets his comeuppance, but what could have been the ending has Lee leave us with a sting in the tale.
The film’s coda presents footage from current events including a 2017 ‘White Lives Matter’ rally at the University of Colorado, the Charlottesville tragedy where a white thug drives his car into a black crowd of protestors interposed by Trump’s subsequent speech. Lee leaves us with a dedication to the one victim killed – a white girl, Heather Heyer.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Ashley Atkinson
- Director: Spike Lee
- Writer: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, based on the book, ‘Black Klansman’
- Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin
- Composer: Terence Blanchard
- Duration: Two hours 15 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?