There’s something unusually alluring about two-time Oscar nominee Spike Lee’s latest film.
On paper, absolutely none of it should work – plot or cinematography. Hollywood newbie John David Washington, son of film icon Denzel Washington, leading a cast including the likes of Adam Driver, Topher Grace, and Jasper Pääkönen, all far more experienced than him? The inclusion of an unreleased Prince recording playing as the audience leaves the cinema, rendering them unable to fully appreciate it? Black Colorado Springs P.D. officer Ron Stallworth successfully infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan at its highest levels and not being killed?
In theory it all seems ludicrous, misguided even. Yet, through utilising the factors that have brought African-American filmmakers back into the limelight in recent years, Spike delivers an engaging, relevant piece about respect, difference and family that blends humour with tragedy to make a poignant statement about the timelessness of prejudice.
The very first of these factors that 'BlacKkKlansman' makes work is its script. Adapting the real Ron Stallworth’s autobiographical book of the same name, an uncompromising sense of reality is constantly present – making the audience receptive to the stereotypically passionate young black activists, racist 1970s police officers, and even more racist characters of the Ku Klux Klan. Such receptivity comes not only from the script’s ability to develop each of the major cast in their very different journeys with race, but also humanise their struggle throughout.
A dark, nuanced comedy arises the more we see Ron, putting on his best impression of a ‘white’ voice, belittling blacks, Jews, Mexicans, and ‘anyone else without pure white Aryan blood’ in conversations with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). However, by the same token, the relaxed nature of these lines keep the audience shocked with the fact no other character reacts whatsoever to them; making such dialogue seem almost normal. It’s gripping writing.
Gripping writing brought to life by equally gripping acting. Though John takes time to ease into the three-dimensional role of Ron, and the audience feels this, Adam Driver as the begrudgingly acquiescent cop Flip Zimmerman steals the show with his eclectic performance – creating great chemistry with both the police force he works with and the Klan members he infiltrates as the white Ron Stallworth.
All actors portraying the Klan deserve praise for transforming the controversial organisation from a simple collection of seemingly harmless friends, emphasized in Ryan Eggold’s Ned Flanders-esque characterization of Klan Chapter leader Walter Breachway, to what the audience expects, and back again. They are so likable the audience feels guilty to admit it – a testament to a highly impressive all-round performance. Unfortunately, however, the audience sees little of the third main party in the film, young college-age activists led by the fiery Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) after the first 30 minutes, their role lost in the complexities of the movie’s subject matter and the Ron/Patrice love subplot subsequently feeling like a forced-but-necessary addition for a ‘have-it-all’ Hollywood movie.
The final decisive factor to this film’s success is Spike’s ability to work in small but crucial directorial decisions that subconsciously heighten our experience. Presenting a romanticised portrait of the ‘70s certain to provoke nostalgia in some, subtly slanting camera angles to elicit visual discomfort at random points, inputting snippets of monochromatic white propaganda films for our reference, and linking the film’s themes to the modern day in a final montage that can only be described as brilliant, he justifies his Honorary Academy Award without question by simply putting everything together – and making it work.
Ultimately, Spike Lee’s 'BlacKkKlansman' manages to achieve the rare feat of making a Hollywood movie that can appeal to both critical and commercial audiences alike, creating cinematic art from circumstances that would, in many other directors’ hands, simply not work. Respect is something this film desires, demands and deserves, but its ultimate implication that we must give it to each other first and foremost underlies the impact all films about African-Americans wish they could express equally as well. A truly great film.