We have seen almost too many films to count that focus on race relations, civil rights and the Klu Klax Klan (KKK), given how politically charged these subjects are, it makes sense that filmmakers keep on returning to them. Spike Lee is a director that has made his name directing films that explore racism, such as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. Therefore, he seems most appropriate to bring the true story of Detective Ron Stallworth’s quest to bring down the KKK to life. And he does so with great gusto, because BlacKkKlansman is a successful retelling of Stallworth’s story as well as a great film.
It’s 1972, and Colorado Springs has just started allowing minorities to join their police force. Ron Stallworth (Jon David Washington) decides to join and is immediately assigned to record duty. Once he is promoted to detective, he comes up with an insane idea, pretend to be a white man of the same name that wants to become a member of the KKK and infiltrate it from the inside. He works with fellow detective Flip (Adam Driver), who pretends to be Ron in front of the KKK members. Ron’s investigation becomes decidedly dangerous as it gets deeper and goes to leader David Duke (Topher Grace).
One of the best aspects of BlacKkKlansman is the main character and John David Washington’s lead performance. Stallworth has a strong internal conflict of being torn between his identity as a police officer, a supporter of black civil rights and being a member of the Klan. These identities clash in scenes with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a Civil Rights activist who is unaware but suspicious of his ulterior motives. Both share the same values, but they go about them differently. Despite their romance not really convincing, they work off each other well as characters.
Washington perfectly plays this naïve, yet smart man and conveys the strong confidence that leading this investigation must have took. It is well matched by Adam Driver’s performance, who’s character plays into the same conflict through pretending to be a KKK supporter despite being Jewish. Driver gets a great monologue reflecting this that does not become over the top or preachy.
Another triumph of BlacKkKlansman is the characterisation of the Klan members themselves, as Lee and the writers could have easily made them cartoonish caricatures, but they are surprisingly given some nuance, as well as clearly distinguishable personalities. The standouts among them are Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) and David Duke. Topher Grace brilliantly plays against type by downplaying his usual exaggerated performance and delivering a charming, yet slimy turn. Jasper Pääkkönen is entertaining and creepy, making a scene with a lie detector truly terrifying – and his American accent is perfect; I didn’t notice that he is Finnish.
The narrative structure is very deliberate and information heavy, focusing on conversations and situations. Whilst this does make the first act too slow paced, it helps us understand most of the characters and the central themes of anti-violence and the influence films have on reality, the latter theme bookending the film. The theme of anti-violence is demonstrated through both the lack of on-screen violence and the focus on Ron and the police attempting to stop an impending war between civil rights activists and the KKK.
The best section of the film is ultimately the fantastic third act that is incredibly engrossing and intense. There is a perfect use of parallel editing that juxtaposes the opposing reactions and beliefs of the Klan with the Civil Rights Activists, as well as a thrilling climax that acts as a perfect payoff. Despite the optimistic tone of the final 10 minutes, the final scene switches gears and becomes truly depressing, but earns this choice.
As for the technical aspects, this is one of Spike Lee’s most grounded films. Though he uses some stylistic elements like split-screen, dutch angles and his trademark dolly shot, he keeps the camera still and lets his scenes play out. The grainy cinematography, classical soundtrack and slow editing all re-create the feeling of the 70’s and it feels like Lee was inspired by police procedural films of that era, specifically Serpico and other Sidney Lumet films.
BlacKKKlansman is a compelling drama that successfully tells its fact-based story with thrills and smart writing Spike Lee has crafted a film that will both entertain and provoke discussion among film fans and general audiences alike. Infiltrate hate and see this film ASAP.