‘For you it’s a crusade. For me it’s a job…’
My knowledge of legendary director Spike Lee is pretty limited. I watched (and loved) 25th Hour, I somehow wound up with Summer of Sam on DVD back in the day so I’ve seen that a few times but that is pretty much it. No Do The Right Thing, no She’s Gotta Have It and perhaps most shamefully of all, no Malcolm X. After watching Black KKKlansman I feel compelled to go back and watch all of them.
Ron Stallworth (brought to life brilliantly by John David Washington – son of Denzel Washington) was one of the first African American police officers in Colorado Springs. A combination of Stallworth over the phone and fellow officer Flip Zimmerman in person (Adam Driver) manage to infiltrate the KKK and even get close to their ‘Grand Wizard’ (preposterous) David Duke.
Firstly, the acting is wonderful across the board. Washington is a revelation in the main role, bringing bundles of charm and charisma to the table. He shares an easy chemistry with Driver, who has already cast off the shackles of Kylo Ren to become one of the most sought after movie stars in the world. Elsewhere, Laura Harrier is confident and believable as revolutionary campaigner Patrice Dumas, Corey Hawkins is electric in his cameo as Black Panther advocate Kwarme Ture and Topher Grace perfectly captures the delusional ignorance of the aforementioned KKK leader David Duke. This is an actors film.
It is also a film that is funny, smart and salient, the last trait being the one that has perhaps ignited the most discussion. Spike Lee has been open in his wish to use this story from the past to hold up a mirror to the uneasy relationship with race that America is currently enduring, as well as the seeming rise of far right groups across the world. While parallels can undoubtedly be made with Trump’s America, there are times in Black KKKlansman when that message felt a little too on the nose. I go to the cinema as a way to escape from the unrelenting grind of everyday life. No matter how much I might agree with Lee, for me that is not what cinema is for.
Having said that, the decision to end the film with tragic and shocking footage of the 2017 Charlottesville riots is both powerful and poignant and while I don’t care for politics in my art, that is not to say that nobody else does or that it is morally wrong for any reason. Whatever floats your boats. Or as Larry David would say ‘I follow the Golden Rule… do unto others as you’d have others do unto you’. Indeed.
To focus on the political message is to do Black KKKlansman a disservice however. Spike Lee has made a film that is so much more than political propaganda. It is an exhilarating thrill ride with top notch performances at the heart of it that results in one of the best films of 2018. Recommend for everyone. Apart from David Duke.