Far from Crooklyn, Spike Lee emerges from the mountains of Colorado Springs with the most absurd undercover story you’ve ever heard of. “Wake up”, here comes what Lee describes as “som e fo’ real shit!” Cannes Grand Prix winning comedy, biopic and masterful political satire Blackkklansman.
A massive afro fills up the screen. It is 1979 and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is now the very first black police officer of Colorado Springs and he is eager to go undercover. Originally assigned to infiltrate the Black Power Movement, he aims towards a very different task. He calls the KKK hotline and applies for a membership. It is 1979 and Ron Stallworth is now the very first black member of the Ku Klux Klan. A dangerous situation to be in. While he himself tries to learn about the so-called “Organization’s” plans by talking to members over the phone, it is his white, Jewish partner Flip (Adam Driver), who appears at meetings in person. In BlackkklansmanSpike Lee tells the story of a buddy-cop duo unlike any seen before. It is funny, thrilling, interesting and ultimately disturbing.
Blackkklansman is filled with gallons of situational humour, but it is not a full fleshed comedy as there is constant underlining tension. A generic duality caused by the socio-political themes it touches upon. There is a scene of a Klan meeting during which a smiling housewife enters the room, lovingly puts down a plate of crackers and then wishes she could shoot every single black person (that’s not what she calls them) herself. In an earlier scene, Dr Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) is giving a presentation of how Blacks and Jews are poisoning America’s rise to greatness. Only he keeps stumbling over his words and can barely remember his speech. One can’t help but chuckle at these absurd characters, while they nevertheless are of alarming and unsettling nature. What is experienced here is a masterful generic subversion, which Lee uses to make a powerful statement.
It is often hard to take Blackkklansman’s bigot Klansmen serious, with most of them being gun swinging dimwits that get hot on their racist slurs. After all, they’re dumb characters in a film about the 70s. This changes as, towards the end of the film, Lee aggressively bombards you with powerful footage from 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Real footage of angry people, reminiscent of the film’s villains, creating horrible acts. Suddenly they’re a lot less laughable. In an earlier, humorous scene it is made clear that KKK head, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) dreams of someday having a man of his beliefs sitting within the White House. The film’s protagonists laugh at this desire. The audience knows better. The irony is sweet, the aftertaste isn’t.
In a day and age when it is a cinematic essential to convey a sense of realism, I enjoy Spike Lee’s movies for engaging with formalist aesthetics. His movies are often very stylized, with extravagant cinematography and framing, as well as often being semi-musicals. He seems to want for you to constantly know that you are watching a movie, while at the same time delivering themes and messages which are deeply rooted within the socio-political conflicts of our time. Extravagant filmmaking and real political messages. It is the balance between these two that made past film like Do the Right Thing truly great. This tonal balance doesn’t always work and the flamboyance can be overwhelming, as in Chi-Raq. Viewers of Blackkklansman mustn’t need to worry about this occurring as Lee’s tonal balance had hardly ever been as accessible.
Blackkklansman, unlike most Spike Lee joints, is restricted by the factual events it retells. This doesn’t make it any less of an auteur film. It features a fantastic score by frequent Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard and several scenes that might as well appear with a musical. Lee also uses a series of unconventional technical effects, such as Dutch angles and his famous double dolly shot in which the characters seem to be gliding across the floor without the use of their legs. Lee uses all of these effects, without ever breaking the thrilling tension and comedic undertones. Enough to spice up the film, but not to spoil any of it.
But perhaps the greatest element of Blackkklansman is its lead protagonist Ron Stallworth. A black police officer who loves his job and hopes to improve the treatment of African Americans from within the law. A heroic vision that becomes shrouded by fellow African Americans, such as girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) who believes that demonstration and aggravation are the formulae for change. Blackkklansman explores this emotional turmoil within Ron, whether a black man making it within the system really makes a difference, bringing back a heated discussion from Do the Right Thing – Who would you rather be, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X?
Created on a modest $15 million budget and balanced between biopic, social thriller and buddy-cop comedy, Blackkklansman humours down its audience’s defences in order to deliver an effective and powerful impact. With sharpened humour and without mincing matters, Blackkklansman is a very enjoyable and highly recommendable film; and an absolute must-see for any fans of Spike Lee.