From an era where cops were white and music was funky comes BlackkKlansman, Spike Lee’s tribute to one of the more unbelievable moments in American race relations, writes entertainment editor John Turnbull.
Directed by Spike Lee (2018)
Based loosely on a true story, BlackkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado who went undercover and successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. It’s directed by Spike Lee, a polarising creator, who has made movies from the sublime to the ridiculous. Funnily enough, BlackkKlansman covers both territories.
Ron is played by John David Washington, best known at this point for being the son of Denzel. He’s joined by Adam Driver as the undercover Ron, Laura Harrier as student activist Patrice and Topher Grace as David Duke via Ned Flanders. Other notable cast members include Alec Baldwin, Robert John Burke and Michael Buscemi, who I honestly thought was his brother Steve until I started writing this review.
After a very brief period in uniform, Ron is transferred to the detectives’ squad and placed undercover, investigating the influence of the Black Panther party on local university students. On a whim, he answers a newspaper ad from the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan and is invited along to a meeting, which is when he has to seek the assistance of the only white cop who doesn’t hate him, leading them into a farcical situation that could get them both killed at any moment.
The white cop in question is Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver. This is the first movie where I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed an Adam Driver performance, as he tends to steal every scene he’s in with his laidback charm. By comparison, Washington isn’t bad, but he’s got a while to go before he has the gravitas of his old man, and he struggles with a script that isn’t quite as snappy as Lee thinks it is.
While I’m not a massive fan of putting things in boxes, if I had to put BlackkKlansman into a genre it would probably be comedy/drama, with a pretty heavy emphasis on the comedy. There are couple of scenes that create genuine tension, but it’s pretty slapstick at times — particularly the buffoonish way that the KKK members are portrayed. That is, until the end credits, which use modern day footage to show that racism in America hasn’t gone away, and is probably getting worse. I found these closing credits to be incredibly moving and somewhat at odds with the relatively light movie that had preceded it.
Since BlackkKlansman was released, filmmaker Boots Riley has penned a scathing takedown of the movie, essentially accusing Spike Lee of whitewashing the story. His main argument is that the real Ron Stallworth actually spent around three years infiltrating black organisations, rather than the single day portrayed in the film. Worse still, Ron may even have been a part of the FBIs infamous Counter Intelligence Program, known to have assassinated black leaders in order to incite unrest. Riley also points out that radical speakers like Kwame Ture would be far more likely to tell students to study than to take up arms — because he knew intimately the cost of taking up arms against a racist establishment.
From a visual perspective, BlackKlansman has an authentically 1970s feel — particularly in the scenes where students were listening rapturously to older activists who had seen American racism at its unbridled worst. At the end of the day, Spike Lee has made some directorial choices that some people will appreciate, some people less so.
BlackkKlansman — 8/10
Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Damnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).
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