Spike Lee’s Cannes grand prix winner is the director’s best work since his Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. Combining the stylistic slickness of 25th Hour with the controversial potential of Bamboozled, it’s a stranger-than-fiction tale (“based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”) of an African American cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. Produced by the team behind Get Out (it was Jordan Peele who brought the story to Lee), BlacKkKlansman slips seamlessly from borderline-absurdist humour to all-too-real horror, conjuring an urgent blend of sociopolitical period satire and contemporary wake-up call.
John David Washington gives a wonderfully wry and nuanced central performance as Ron Stallworth, an afro-sporting idealist who becomes “the Jackie Robinson” of the formerly all-white Colorado Springs police force. Graduating swiftly from records to intelligence, Stallworth answers a newspaper ad for the KKK, posing on the telephone as a budding white supremacist. When face-to-face meetings are required, Stallworth’s Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (a brooding Adam Driver) is drafted in to press the flesh at meetings where homemade terrorism is served up with cheese and crackers, the tension heightened by the weird domesticity.
Soon, a relationship is being built with grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), the “smiling future” of “the organisation”, who plans to lead it from cross burnings into politics under the banner of putting “America First!” and making it “great again”. “The United States would never elect somebody like David Duke,” says Ron, prompting an accusation of naivety from his boss and a ripple of ghoulish guffaws from an audience who know how this cruel joke ends.
With its long-lensed, long-take shots, captured on 35mm by cinematographer Chayse Irvin, and note-perfect production and costume design, BlacKkKlansman elegantly evokes the cinema of its setting (Lee has cited The French Connection, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon as tonal touchstones). There are playful conversations about Shaft v Super Fly and the relative merits of Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal, while Terence Blanchard’s sparse score blends guitar-and-drums funk with classical thriller strings. Yet there’s nothing nostalgic about this evocation of a (not so) bygone age as it juxtaposes historical racial hatred with shocking news footage of Charlottesville in 2017, and Trump’s astonishing “blame on both sides” response to neo-Nazi attacks. As with his use of the Rodney King footage in Malcolm X, Lee efficiently conflates the struggles of the past and present into a powerful cinematic continuum.
What’s most remarkable is how well Lee balances the tonal shifts, provoking both laughs and gasps with a film built upon dualities: fact and fiction (Stallworth’s story is heavily fictionalised, yet rings “true”); past and present; inside and outside. Just as our central figure becomes two characters folded into one (Flip explicitly questions whether his former rejection of his Jewish heritage was a form of “passing”), so BlacKkKlansman revels in mirror images. Ron’s relationship with student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) is shadowed by creepily affectionate scenes in which a white supremacist couple cuddle while conspiring to kill. A declaration that police officers are “family” who “stick together, right or wrong” chimes with the Klan’s own twisted code, echoing a central debate about whether change can be effected from within or without the system. Angry cries of “white power” and “black power” are pointedly intercut, ricocheting around the film’s mediating message of “all power to all the people”.
Alongside his trademark dolly shots, fans of Lee’s films will find threads that lead right back to the director’s 1980 short The Answer, a biting response to The Birth of a Nation that nearly got him thrown out of film school. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee returns to DW Griffith’s Klan-aggrandising epic, using it as a backdrop for a sobering lesson about the power of movies to mould attitudes, from the heroically fluttering confederate flags of Gone with the Wind to the racist stereotypes of the Tarzan serials. Yet Lee also clearly believes in cinema’s power to change people for good, lending a passionate, proselytising edge to BlacKkKlansman.
From a brilliantly bilious opening appearance by Trump-scourge Alec Baldwin to the statesmanlike gravitas of Harry Belafonte, the ensemble cast packs a weighty punch, aided by standout turns from supporting players such as Ashlie Atkinson and Corey Hawkins. Yet the real star here is Lee. After the uncertainties of Oldboy and Chi-Raq, it’s great to see this admirably unruly film-maker back at the height of his provocative powers.