Principal Cast : David John Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Alter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Corey Hawkins, Michael Buscemi, Ken Garito, Robert John Burke, Fred Weller, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Damaris Lewis.
Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader. Based on actual events.
Spike Lee’s scathing indictment of American racial issues might be set in the 1970’s, but its truth and hideous underbelly of modernity still rings true even now. Blackkklansman, in which a black detective infiltrates his local KKK chapter, is – if you’ll pardon the unintended humour – as dark a black comedy as you’ll see anywhere, even if it lacks the raw bite of Lee’s previous works. Ostensibly a big-budget arthouse movie, the film’s dissection of America’s culture of white nationalism, bookended by a ranting Alec Baldwin in full supremacist flow and the relatively recent 2017 Charlottesville March, in which protester Heather Heyer was mowed down by a car in a terrorist attack during a rally by neo-Nazi scumbags, will defy anyone to suggest that the country’s struggle with bigotry and prejudice is nowhere near over, if it’s only just beginning.
Set in the early 1970’s, a young black man, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is recruited to be the first African-American policeman in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Against the better judgement of his superiors, he is eventually placed in the Intelligence Bureau, where he inadvertently makes contact with a member of the town’s local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and pretends to be interested in joining the organisation. initially only conversing with them over the phone, Ron is invited to attend personally – something he cannot do being black – and seconds another detective, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pretend to be him for face-to-face meetings. Between the pair, they gradually infiltrate the group, much to the exasperation of altogether suspicious loose canon Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) and eventually meet KKK director David Duke (Topher Grace); in doing so, the pair uncover a plan to murder a local black rights activist, Patrice Dumas (Lara Harrier).
Spike Lee is nothing if not provocative. Whether it’s films such as Malcolm X, The 25th Hour or Summer of Sam, or even (comparatively) mainstream fare such as Inside Man or Oldboy, Lee is a director with something to say. Whether you appreciate his message or not, he’s a unique voice in the Hollywood landscape, and a voice that absolutely refuses to diminish over time, bless him. His take on America’s racial issues is obviously a, er, white-hot topic at the minute, considering the current incumbent of the Presidency, and public displays of white supremacy being once again on the rise. The President’s referral to “good people on both sides” following the Charlottesville attack are a violent, starkly contrasting explosion of fascism forming a terrible epilogue to Lee’s film, which concludes with footage from the attack as well as numerous clips of both the racist Unite The Right members and the counter-protests as well as The Donald’s egregious public messaging. Lee is making a statement here: racism is a scourge and a virus, an evil subculture that – to America’s great shame – is rising to the surface again today. Lessons, apparently, were never learned.
Lee, together with screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmot, hew the darkest of humour from what is an utterly preposterous proposition: that a black man can pretend to be white in a way that fools even the infamous Klan, enough so that he’s given a membership card and invited to rallies! The sheers balls of Stallworth to do what he does brings the majority of the film’s hidden chuckles, whilst the depiction of KKK members Walter, Felix, Ivanhoe (a terrific Pail Walter Hauser – last seen playing a similarly bereft-of-intelligence role in I Tonya) – and Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) is precisely the infuriating methodology that will have closet racists seething inside. There’s a subplot between Ron and Patrice – Laura Harrier is excellent in the role – that feels manifestly inadequate, but the film sings when it focuses on the assholes we love to hate.
Texturally, the film’s cast all do astonishing work in their own way, although if I had one chief criticism it would be John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth, who feels rather… bland. He’s just kind of there, he has no special powers or particular proclivities that make him stand out from anyone else, or even a defining personality trait that we can attach to. Washington does a good job in the role, but I felt like his arc was subservient to the overall plot mechanics and not an intrinsic part of the film itself. Adam Driver, as his co-infiltrator, is excellent but hardly stretched as Zimmerman, a character initially on the periphery before suddenly becoming central to the plot; he too has little backstory to speak of, other than the fabricated one made up for him by Stallworth to ingratiate himself into the Klan. Topher Grace plays the odious David Duke, a man of reprehensible character and evil motivation, with exquisite glee, while Jasper Paakkonen is a standout as the off-the-chain nasty piece of work that is Felix, the chapter’s loose cannon. In all, the film is cast superbly, but at times I get the sense Lee was too focused on the idea of the humour in the story than probing the characters he had at his disposal so well. It’s a small criticism, and in no way minimised by appreciation of the film, but something I noted to myself on reflection. [Sidebar: the appearance of a vaguely Steve Buscemi-sounding actor in a minor supporting role as another detective working Stallworth’s case confused me into thinking it was Steve Buscemi, until I realised it was actually Steve’s brother Michael!]
Blackklansman is yet another grenade of fire launched into the collective consciousness of the American people. Although salaciously dark with humour, and laced with pathos that hooks in deep and doesn’t let go, the film’s message is clear: racism and prejudice aren’t honourable or noble human traits, they are reprehensible and divisive. The journey of Black Americans through their nation’s history is one writ with blood and fury, and Lee’s contempt for those who hide behind platitudes in failing to condemn such actions is as holy a fire as only he can deliver. Well made, confronting and occasionally unbelievable, Blackkklansman is remarkably prescient and hauntingly familiar, a tragic tale that regards those echoes of the past as a failure of society to move forward and grow.
© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.