Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson
Without starting to sound like a broken record, the times they are a-changin’. Film has always been a medium through which creative people have been pushing the boundaries of real issues, boundaries that should have been broken down years ago or really should never have been necessary in the first place. One of these ridiculous boundaries surrounds people of any race that isn’t of a Caucasian heritage. In particular, African-Americans have been either excluded or portrayed unfairly or incorrectly in Hollywood movies since its inception (there have been the odd exceptions but not nearly enough to warrant a mark in actual ‘change’). But with the political climate of the of the US in the past few years (particularly within Obama’s time as President of the USA) and many, many incidents of racism being brought to light rather than covered up, which was apparently the norm in the past, cinema is finally being handed over to those who have stories to tell that are far, far more important than the often boring and monotonous swill that comes out of a white-washed Hollywood. It’s a large order to fill, so does Spike Lee’s latest provide more exposition on these on-going issues, or merely remind us of the current and appalling state of affairs?
It’s 1972, the USA is experiencing a lot of civil unrest, and the Colorado Springs Police Department take on their first black police officer, Ron Stallworth (Washington), where he is mostly welcomed and treated as an equal but for a few racist white officers. Relegated to the records room, Ron finds himself wanting to progress in his career, and quickly. He confidently announces to his superiors that he wishes to become a detective, believing that he could be useful undercover to infiltrate groups who may pose a threat to the peace. Chief Bridges (Burke) has his reservations about Ron’s lack of experience but offers him a chance to go undercover at a rally for black students where a well-known activist is giving a talk. Here he meets student Patrice (Harrier), president of the black student union. After spotting an advertisement in the newspaper, Ron calls the number for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, who are recruiting, and fakes a hatred for black people and Jews alike in order to gain membership. When he’s accepted, he asks fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Driver), who happens to be Jewish, to pose as Ron when meeting face to face with members of the ‘organisation’, to which Flip agrees. Through their investigation, which begins to entwine with the real Ron’s relationship with Patrice, a lot of light is shone on the ins and outs of one of the most horrendous cults the world has ever known.
BlacKkKlansman’s opening features the famous scene from 1939’s Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara is wandering amongst the dead and injured during the American Civil War, and we briefly see a wrecked Confederate flag. Later on we see KKK members watching scenes from 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, a film which the Klan use as propaganda to promote the cult. It feels like a strong nod from Lee as to the power of cinema when it comes to social commentary and making an impact, which is something BlacKkKlansman certainly does. It doesn’t even really have to do much: the majority of the film is what really happened (with some dramatic license here and there), and as the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. It feels wrong to say we’re entertained by the story, though it is ultimately an enjoyable movie, with some comic moments dropped in to diffuse some of the tension and lighten the tone at times. It’s probably more accurate to say our attention is caught by the shock of realising that nothing has changed since 1972, and it’s that which keeps its audience engrossed.
Based on a true story, the events of BlacKkKlansman occurred in ’79 rather than ’72, but it was felt that the early seventies would have a stronger impact with actual events happening within the civil rights movement, the political domain and the resurgence of the KKK. This all works to paint a strong picture of what society was like at that moment in time, and Lee’s ultimate worrying point is that nothing has changed. Ron and his fellow African-Americans suffered so much abuse that it’s little wonder they still felt segregated despite federal law changing to make segregation illegal. The film draws to a close using shocking and heart-wrenching footage from the events that occurred in Charlottesville in 2017, in which white supremacists violently attacked counter-protesters. It leaves audiences (at least, the right audiences) with goosebumps and tears, confused as to just why these things are still happening in this day and age. It might seem like an extreme way to end a film, but unfortunately we still live in extreme times. If that isn’t the mark of a film that has done what it has set out to do, who knows what is.
This can’t have been an easy production for the cast and crew, but the cast in particular. The language they used and performances they gave must have been so difficult. As an audience member it’s incredibly difficult and often uncomfortable to watch, especially for those who cannot comprehend the existence of racism, segregation and discrimination, so for the performers it must have been extremely challenging. But it also goes to show the range of talent on offer: Washington (talented spawn of the great Denzel) is utterly immersive as Ron, falling into that role easily as an African-American who has likely had his share of some form of racial abuse, statistically speaking, whether directly or indirectly. He perfects the humour when it’s there but also portrays Ron as a strong man who wants to do right by humanity rather than just his own people. Driver is a little more mundane in his role as Zimmerman but he provides a good contrast to headstrong Ron. Pääkkönen and Eggold as two of the main KKK members are harrowing, particularly Pääkkönen’s performance. Grace makes for a quietly disturbing David Duke, creating a character based on an infamous real person whose influence on thousands of people is alarming.
Despite a bit of a slow start, once BlacKkKlansman really gets going audiences are quickly drawn in and it’s impossible to get back out. Lee ensures you go away thinking about everything you have just seen, particularly when he brings it back to current events. It’s easy to forget the past, especially a time when you weren’t present, but linking it to what we see on the news nearly every day brings it all home. The fight for equality is far from over, and films like BlacKkKlansman are unfortunately still needed in order to keep these issues in the mainstream, lest they continue to go unrecognised and unpunished. We need old-fashioned thinking and ideology to die out so the new generations can focus on building a peaceful and equal future. BlacKkKlansman and films of its like will continue to act as history lessons and hopefully work to educate and prevent disastrous repetitive behaviour.