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BlacKkKlansman review - Spike Lee delivers one of the most urgent films of the year

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Verdict: Funny, thoughtful and furious, Spike Lee's powerful attack on bigotry and hate calls for real change. 

The latest Spike Lee joint is loosely based on the absurd true story (this is, as Lee puts it, "some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”) of how the first African-American officer in Colorado Springs police force also became a covert member of the Ku Klux Klan. It might be set in 1973, but don’t let that fool you – BlacKkKlansman is as contemporary and necessary as anything released in cinemas this year.

John David Washington (son of Spike Lee regular Denzel) plays Ron Stallworth, a cop whose earnestness and enthusiasm for the profession can’t prevent him from landing a mind-numbing job in the filing department. His break comes when he’s asked to infiltrate “a bunch of subversives” at a local Black Students’ Union meeting. There he meets – and, inevitably, falls for – activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), and listens to a rousing speech made by civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) that forces him to consider his complicity in the upholding of a racist system.

The plot kicks into action when Stallworth finds a newspaper ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and promptly dials the number. To the disbelief of his colleagues, he convinces Walter (Ryan Eggold) that he’s a white man looking to join the Klan. Receiving reluctant permission to take the ruse further, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver – and yes, that really was his name) is enlisted as Stallworth’s white alter-ego who will attend the meetings.

Adam Driver and John David Washington

Obviously, a premise as preposterous as this can’t help but be played for laughs. There’s an inherent ridiculousness in Stallworth signing off his phone calls with “God bless white America”, or twirling a KKK membership card in his fingers. But in the context of contemporary American politics – i.e. with a bigot in the White House (‘Agent Orange’, as Lee has nicknamed him) and the alt-right on the rise – it would be ill-advised to describe BlacKkKlansman as particularly humorous. Dramatic irony, a device usually associated with the comedy genre, can also be painful; and when Stallworth protests that no one would ever elect someone like Klan leader David Duke as president, it’s not funny – it’s somewhat devastating.

Duke plays a considerable role in the narrative (an unnervingly calm turn by Topher Grace), which is, in part at least, a meditation on hatred. Lee is eager to stress that evil comes in many guises, so in addition to Duke, privately despicable but bidding to project the image of a respectable public figure, we get Alec Balwin playing an Alex-Jones style shouty white-supremacist. Then there’s the permanently plastered Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and the paranoid Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who, suspecting Flip to be Jewish, demands to know whether he is ‘circumstanced’. They’re all morons, though the film doesn’t let us forget that morons can still be dangerous – again, a particularly pertinent message for citizens living under the Trump administration.

BlacKkKlansman is also preoccupied with the history of Hollywood, and its inseparability from the history of American racism. The film opens with a famous crane shot from Gone with the Wind (1939) that scans a railroad station littered with corpses before settling on the troubling presence of a waving confederate flag. Out on a date, Ron and Patrice debate the value and damage of Blaxploitation cinema. And a large portion of the Kwame Ture speech concerns the contempt he felt for the African characters in the Tarzan movies of his childhood. (It’s worth noting here that Corey Hawkins is astonishing in the role despite his slim screen time – and if Judi Dench could win an Oscar for her eight-minute appearance in Shakespeare in Love, so should he!).

But the most shocking indictment of film culture comes in the third act, when Klan members hold a screening of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist – and successful – The Birth of a Nation (1915), munching on popcorn as they cheer the lynching of a black character. At the time of the film’s release the Ku Klux Klan was mostly dormant, but Griffith’s heroic depiction of the Klansmen helped inspire its revitalisation.

Topher Grace as Grand Wizard David Duke

Films hold the power to change the real world, and Spike Lee knows it. His film is itself demanding a cultural shift, this time against the racism with which American cinema has been so complicit. Cross-cut with a Klan meeting is another Black Students’ Union gathering, during which a character powerfully and painfully recounts the real lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916. Another, quieter moment sees Flip admitting to himself that he never considered his Jewish heritage until faced with the Klan’s vicious anti-Semitism. It’s moving yet encouraging to hear him admit “Now I’m thinking about it all the time.”

Not all of the film’s ideas land so well. The character of Patrice is clearly one of the invented embellishments to the true story, and her largely functional role mostly comprises of raising the relevant political questions. While Stallworth believes the police force can be reformed from the inside, Patrice can’t accept its ingrained racism. Though the film takes no explicit stance on the matter, a late, crowd-pleasing scene of ill-judged Hollywood catharsis does regrettably pin the blame on one anomalous cop, rather than acknowledging the systemic racism that exists within the force.

Though the specifics of the film’s politics might not be satisfactorily laid out earlier in the film, there’s no mistake made with BlacKkKlansman’s ending. After an utterly thrilling set piece climax, the narrative seems to be reaching its conclusion; but Lee isn’t done – suddenly we’re transported from ’70s Colorado Springs to Charlottesville, 11th August 2017, and documentary footage of the white supremacist riots that resulted in the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer. In amongst the montage we have the infamous footage of Donald Trump, of course, claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides”.

BlacKkKlansman’s history lesson isn’t history at all. The emotional punch of the film’s ending can’t be overstated – now, Spike Lee seems to be saying, what are you going to do about it?

BlacKkKlansman is out in cinemas now, distributed by Universal. 

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