Spike Lee has never been one to shy away from controversy – both through his own personal antics and through his unapologetic approach to the portrayal of American race relations in his art, Lee is always a passionate and intriguing storyteller.
His latest film, BlacKkKlansman, was shown at Reading Film Theatre last week, and is based on the 2014 memoir of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. During the 1970s, Stallworth took on the perilous job of infiltrating the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The identity of Stallworth’s partner remains a mystery for his own safety, but this missing element of the story is filled wonderfully by Adam Driver, fresh off the back of Star Wars, but in a much more likeable role, that of the fictitious detective Flip Zimmerman.
Although the themes present in the movie are heavy, they’re certainly important and merit deep thought and discussion – like me, you may even reach the end of the movie feeling angry at the state of the ‘modern’ world, and rightly so. But don’t be alarmed by all the seriousness: BlacKkKlansman succeeds, as noted, through its dualism. Yes, the movie wants you to think, and to reflect on the state of the world, and the progress that still needs to be made, but it doesn’t skimp on anything else.
The film is beautifully shot and edited, is frequently hilarious and a real joy to watch on the whole. It also contains great performances by the entire cast, with the main standouts being Driver as the conflicted Zimmerman, Laura Harrier as a passionate student activist, and each of the actors portraying KKK members, who especially deserve a shout out for successfully making me uncomfortable and terrified in every scene they appeared in. Nothing is sacrificed here: the message and themes are clear and important, but the movie never once stops being engaging. So give it a watch, it may just inspire you.
The release of BlacKkKlansman was certainly well-timed – a clear parallel is drawn between the infamous white supremacist organisation, the KKK, and the era of President Trump, marked by events such as the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. This is undoubtedly the film’s intention: it wants you to know how little has changed in America since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It outwardly compares the past actions of the KKK to those of the alt-right and white supremacist movements now, whilst also critiquing police brutality and violence towards black Americans.
The film is essentially a tale of duality: the story depicted takes place in the 1970s but much of it is eerily reminiscent of present-day happenings. The movie is often very funny, providing a stark contrast to the more serious moments. Its depiction of white supremacy is at times played up for laughs, as are scenes depicting Stallworth, who is African-American, and Zimmerman, who is Jewish, partaking in anti-black and anti-Semitic conversation with their ‘fellow’ KKK members. It often feels like you’re being encouraged to mock the absurd ideology of this hateful movement, only to be reminded later in the film of the true threat they pose to ethnic and religious minorities.
Bearing in mind the intentional parallels between the events of the movie and present day America, it seems as if Lee is giving something like a warning to his audience: this has happened before and it’s still happening now, so don’t be complacent.