Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Run Time: 135 mins
‘Based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit’, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. The film tells his story and how he successfully manages to infiltrate his local Klu Klux Klan by putting on a convincing portrayal of a white supremacist over the phone and then getting his Jewish colleague to assume his identity whenever his physical presence was required. This ‘joint’ is directed by Spike Lee (as he refers to his films), whose entire body of work is thought-provoking and interrogates issues of race and gender. Although his latest crop of films have received rather lukewarm reviews, I really enjoyed his remake of Oldboy (and am still holding hope we will one day get his true 140 minute vision before it was cut down) and Chi-Raq isn’t bad either. BlacKkKlansman premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival where reviews were almost unanimously positive, many citing this as a return to form and among his best work.
BlacKkKlansman certainly maintains Spike Lee’s passions and although the film stumbles in its first half an hour or so, when we get to the heart of the story, it is a mostly gripping and infectious account of these events. When you’ve got material as fascinating as this, it’s hard not to make a gripping film. But I don’t think BlacKkKlansman ranks as one of Spike Lee’s best. It has the tendency to be rather preachy at times, ham-fistedly spelling out its message. It’s also rather unsubtle in how it’s trying to link to current events, namely the Trump presidency and America’s deeply divided culture and racism.
But if you can get past some of the obvious storytelling, there’s certainly a lot to like here. Lee interrogates many different themes, chiefly duality between the film’s events and characters and he manages to balance some laugh-out-loud humour with its main message. All of the film’s characters are well-developed, even the KKK members have fleshed story arcs and you do begin to sympathise not with their beliefs, but with their personalities a little which is to be commended.
John David Washington is excellent in the lead role of Ron Stallworth giving a nuanced yet sprightly performance. Adam Driver as his Jewish police colleague is also strong, a character who is thrown in the deep end, who has to assume Stallworth’s personality when meeting KKK members in person. The real standout of the film though is Topher Grace as David Duke, ‘Grand Wizard’ of the KKK who is note-perfect and is endlessly charismatic yet sinister.
Stylistically, BlacKkKlansman is great, with excellent costume design and settings that perfectly mirror the 70’s setting. Terence Blanchard’s score, a mainly funk and jazz infused affair, has some memorable motifs and supplements the narrative well. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is also good, with some interesting camera angles and shots.
When the main narrative takes centre stage, BlacKkKlansman is thoroughly enjoyable film in Spike Lee’s filmography. It spins a gripping yarn out of a fascinating story and is bolstered by being technically proficient and having some great performances. But its beginning is very self-indulgent and if the film was more subtle, it would be outstanding. I think due to the praise this film has received, I was expecting a little more. It’s a low 4-star grade-wise as a 3-star is rather harsh. BlacKkKlansman is definitely worth seeking out and most audiences should have a blast with it, as well as discovering and questioning the ways in which America’s society works, but it’s far from perfect.