Based On A Crazy, Outrageous, Incredible True Story
After two prologues we cut to the late seventies and are introduced to Ron Stollworth [Washington], the first black police officer assigned to a quiet mountain town in Colorado. After going undercover at a university rally where a civil rights leader is speaking, Stollworth befriends Patrice Dumas [Harrier]. Impressed with his work, his superiors promote Stollworth to intelligence. There he begins an investigation into the local Ku Klux Klan by calling up and posing as a white supremacist. The department gives the go ahead to continue the investigation but assigns Detective Flip Zimmerman [Driver] to be Ron’s white counterpart for face-to-face meetings. Both men manage to form a symbiotic performance that fools the affable head of the Klan chapter, Walter [Eggold] but the hot-headed Felix [Pääkkönen] has doubts. Over time, Ron and Flip impress the Grand Wizard of the Klan, David Duke [Grace] to the extent that he makes a personal visit to Colorado for “Ron’s” official initiation.
A lot of care and attention has been taken on a technical level that produces a rich period environment. The hair, make-up, costumes, sets, props, music choices, everything feels genuine and appropriate to the late 70s. More than that, shooting on 35mm film-stock rather than digital gives a really evocative and immersive feeling. What’s interesting on top of that is not necessarily the curbing but the subtle integration of Lee’s tropes and distinct style to create a very mainstream production with grounded cinematography, direction and editing. The music is another fine example of this with marvellous choices of songs paired with Terence Blanchard’s cool yet unsettling score; perfectly mirroring the tone of the on-screen exploits.
While films about undercover cops is nothing new, the similarities make it all the more trenchant and necessary. At the same time, the performances all round are honestly magnificent. On the one hand we have the cops – who are in of themselves a conflicted group, stuck in the past while progressive elements are trying to drag them forward – and on the other is the klansman with their repugnant views packaged with charm and repurposed as a political movement rather than a hate group. Flitting back and forth between these environments is the cause of a great deal of humour (racism makes for natural comedy.. because it’s so very fundamentally stupid) and there are some standout moments of hilarity on both sides but after all the bloviating and mockery subside, all you are left with is a group of hateful and dangerous individuals. There’s a brilliant cross-cutting between “Ron’s” initiation wherein they are watching and cheering the KKK in Griffith’s silent film The Birth Of A Nation and a group of students listening to a testimonial of a man who witnessed a violent street execution of a black man, partly inspired by the events in said film and all the while you are captivated by the stellar performances. One that comes to mind, in a disturbing way, is Driver’s double-performance. This is both a testament to him as an actor (one of the few I genuinely look forward to seeing in anything right now) and how dangerously easy it seems to switch between outwardly reasonable and polite to saying the most horrific and deplorable things as if they were always there beneath the surface. Driver’s character, Flip, should struggle undercover, he shouldn’t know how to react in these situations but it comes all too naturally, not because he is racist but because he is surrounded by simmering and secluded racism.
Because of the subject matter, it is very difficult to avoid discussing the motivation behind this film’s creation. More than simply telling an anecdotal story of one police investigation, it is a look at the nationalist resurgence crippling western civilisation right now. Sure, this is a tense, funny, clever, poignant release in its own right but it is also actively hoping to start a conversation and motivate people to vote and better collective values. This isn’t anything new for Spike Lee and is largely present in pretty much all of his works. More than that, during a post screening Q&A, Lee said that every artist creates political work, and that choosing not to include politics is in of itself a political statement. The responsibility and duty of the artist to create something entertaining that says something, no matter how simple and too much lenience in the interest of balance has been given to groups that are given global platforms to preach hate. Which ultimately makes for an interesting on-screen balance because the worst thing to do would be to pose the klansman as some cackling, moustache-twirling villain of the past, rather than the very real, active and thriving movement that they currently are. The biggest flaw I can find is that BlacKkKlansman lacks subtlety. But in truth the surreptitious and insidious creeping nature of intolerance needs a bit of bluntness to get through to audiences, so I can’t slate it too heavily for that. I could also bash the fact that certain elements have been heightened for cinematic purposes but these liberties are always taken with anything based on real-life events, so again, it’s hard to take the film too much to task for that.
Much like the 1970s, I feel this contemporary period of social and political change will be the subject of filmmaking for decades to come and the cyclical nature of movements paired with the idea that progressive battles are never won outright, they must constantly be fought and refought to keep fascism at bay, is as interesting at it is tragic. And for cleverly reflecting the societal divide that has split several nations in these recent years, this film deserves as much attention and praise that it can get.
24th August 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
Audience members familiar with Spike Lee and his work, will be more than familiar with his patented double-dolly. Obviously he didn’t invent the technique but it’s something fans come to expect from the director and its placement is excellent. The narrative closes on a few upbeat notes before utilising this shot to not only bring the tone to a darker place but to bring us hurtling into 2017. Suddenly all the laughs and victories are set aside and the fiction of it all is brought into stark realisation with the footage of the murder at Charlottesville, President Trump refusing to denounce Nazis and Duke promoting Trump’s agenda of “taking America back.” Ending with an upside down American flag that becomes a desaturated monochrome symbol is, as stated earlier, very blunt but that’s to ensure the point is made clearly.
As unfortunate and irritating as nepotism can be, sometimes talent just runs in people’s veins and Washington is a fine example of the latter. I only discovered he is Denzel Washington’s son when writing this review but his talents are genuinely impressive and I am looking forward to him being cast in.. well.. frankly everything. Charming, confident, driven, vulnerable, conflicted; Washington gives a wonderful performance that is one of the key reasons this films works so spectacularly.
“America would never elect someone like David Duke President of the United States of America”
In A Few Words:
“Easily Spike Lee’s best film in years”