BlacKkKlansman review: BlacKkKlansman is the movie America needs – poignant and witty
When a scene from Gone with the Wind appears on the screen, you almost think you’re in the wrong cinema. But Spike Lee does nothing by accident.
BlacKkKlansman lays its setting for those unfamiliar with the insidious nature of racism in the United States by using the ubiquitous story of Scarlett O’Hara.
She searches through a train station full of dying Confederate soldiers and there is a brief moment where your heart-strings yank. Everyone knows how Gone with the Wind ends, and it doesn’t end well for Scarlett.
But BlacKkKlansman is not about Scarlett. It is not about Confederate soldiers or the lost ‘great’ days Americans harken back to. It is about one man named Ron Stallworth trying to dismantle a system built to oppress him.
Based on Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, Spike Lee’s adaptation remains close to its source material and makes use of dramatic license in subtle ways, never warping what Stallworth risked to infiltrate the KKK.
Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) becomes the first African-American police officer with the Colorado Springs department and is forced to sit through questions a white prospect would never endure.
He gingerly presses his palms to his well-manicured Afro, his clothes meticulously curated in sleek 70s style.
He would make a model police officer.
He is sent to work in the records room.
So much for being “the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force,” as his Chief tells him.
Almost casually, Ron is moved from the records room to the undercover department. While leafing through a newspaper he sees an ad seeking members for the Ku Klux Klan. He sets the paper down, dials the number, and BlacKkKlansman really begins.
BlacKkKlansman: The Spike Lee movie is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth
When he takes the idea of infiltrating the KKK to his boss, he suggests how he, as a black man, might pull this off. A double act.
“With the right white man,” Stallworth says, “we can do anything.”
The right white man is Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver), referred to throughout most of the movie as white-Ron Stallworth. While this seems like a throwaway moniker, it highlights the otherness with which people of colour are often saddled. Being described as ‘the white Ron’ is one way Lee holds up a mirror to the insidious racism coded in our language.
Ron Stallworth makes inroads with the KKK via phone calls and white-Ron makes the face-to-face contact, and almost instantly suspicion of Flip’s Jewishness lands him in a near death situation.
What started as a comedic double act is suddenly deathly serious.
When they receive their Ron Stallworth KKK membership card, Zimmerman ponders his identity, saying: “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be. I never thought much about it. Now I think about it all the time.”
As a Jewish-American in the audience, this was a reminder: no matter how well you pass you are under threat. Not as prevailingly as more marginalized groups, but you are nonetheless. It was a reminder that as a Jewish person you “have skin in the game.”
But it is Stallworth who is firmly placed at the centre of this narrative, as is the struggle millions of African-Americans faced, and face still.
As the undercover cop, Washington moves somehow both effortlessly and belabouredly through the world which, depending on who he is facing treat him with varying degrees of respect – from plenty of it to downright vitriol and where Stallworth as a character could have become an archetypal solo man on a mission (a la John McClane), Washington makes him shimmer with conflict, empathy, and passion.
Beneath all of the tension, the racism, the guns and the hate, BlacKkKlansman is funny.
So funny the audience was laughing out loud. So loud it was sometimes hard to hear subsequent lines of dialogue.
But the humour is not a security blanket and BlacKkKlansman is a deeply unsettling film not only because it challenges the average WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) to imagine themselves in the shoes of a person of colour, but because it calls white people out directly.
BlacKkKlansman: Washington and Driver both deliver impeccable performances in the Spike Lee movie
Ron Stallworth: The real Ron (L) and John David Washington (R) In BlacKkKlansman
As David Duke presides over the Colorado Springs Chapter induction ceremony, he raises a glass to the men in the room helping to further white-America. “And white women, too,” he says, and the women titter excitedly (white women are a demographic with a bad habit of selling out its sisters-of-colour for proximity to power).
Those who find Lee guilty of heavy-handedness have not been paying attention to the rhetoric used on the ‘other side’ nor have they paid attention to the movie, to the subtle ways in which Lee illustrates the persistent hatred breathing down the neck of Ron, of Patrice, of all people of colour.
The movie may have a few flaws, but BlacKkKlansman is so moving, so funny, and so poignant these flaws are easily outweighed.
Much like the final moments in Get Out (written and directed by BlacKkKlansman producer Jordan Peele) BlacKkKlansman challenges audiences to think differently without telling them how to think, to shift expectations without telling them what to expect.
BlacKkKlansman: Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) threatens Flip over being Jewish (L), Ron and Patrice (R)
This uncertainty, this second-guessing and constant fear linger long after the final theatrical moments of BlacKkKlansman, which in a swift moment undo what little feelings of triumph have been clawed at by Stallworth and his compatriots.
BlacKKlansman dances smoothly between being funny, poignant, heartbreaking, scary, and beautiful. BlacKkKlansman is the movie America needs, all people need – for it is a movie for all people.
During Stallworth’s first undercover mission, attending the speech by activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), the man formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, Ture asks four questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who?”
BlacKkKlansman’s answer? It must be you. It must be us. All power to all the people.
BlacKkKlansman is in UK cinemas Friday August 24, 2018.