Spike Lee’s new, Grand Prix winning film BlacKkKlansman is damning, too crazy to be fictional, historical drama based on the experiences of Ron Stallworth, an African-American Colorado police officer, who goes undercover with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Staring John David Washington as the idealistic, somewhat naive Ron, who is determined to change the world, Adam Driver as Detective Flip Zimmerman – a white police officer who attends the Klan meetings in the place of the real Ron Stallworth, and Lauren Harrier as Patrice Dumas, the young leader of the local African American students union, who becomes tangled up in the investigation.
The film is full of whip-smart dialogue, mixing humour and the painful realities of race in American. Lee chooses to slam home the parallels between the 1970s and Trump’s America, with the film opening with a scene with Alec Baldwin recording a KKK recruitment video – Baldwin, who is currently famous or infamous for his portrayal of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, switches between racist rage and stumbling elocution as he tries to record a successful video. The scene is as funny as it is chilling, setting the tone for the rest of the film.
Washington’s central performance is one of soul, the cinematography is built around him with almost painful close ups as he tries to deal with the barrage of hate that he hears from the Klan members, while also tackling with his position as a black police officer in a town where relations between the police and the black community are strained. Once again, Lee highlights how little has changed over the years, with the murders of black men and women by police, racially targeted stop and searches, and the determination of the officials to label black political movements as subversive and dangerous.
Race and identity are woven throughout the film, from Flip Zimmerman’s struggle with the anti-Semitism he has to embrace as an undercover member of the Klan, to the hatred surrounding the apparent “white pride” that the Klan embrace – with a special mention to Jasper Pääkkönen as the terrifying and unhinged Felix Kendrickson and his equally as unsettling, obedient and meek wife Connie, played by Ashlie Atkinson. The couple display the dual elements of racism – the outwardly violent, and the creeping insidious kind, a relationship which barrels the film along to it’s tense and powerful climax.
While the film is big and loud and powerful, the moments of silence are some of the most upsetting and meaningful: a cross burning reflected in the eye of a Klansman, Stallworth standing alone in field surrounded by targets in the shape of racist caricatures.
The film closes with images and videos from the Charlottesville riots, drawing the direct line from 1970s Klan members to online alt-right movement that helped to propel a racist to the White House. It’s a hard note to end on, but an ever important one, more relevant now than it has ever been.