Thursday 27 December 2018

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

A biographical police investigation drama, BlacKkKlansman is a slick story of hardened bigotry lurking just beneath the surface of American society.

It's the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is admitted as the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. Smart and ambitious, Ron agitates to join the undercover investigations unit, and is finally assigned to monitor a talk by a former Black Panthers leader. He meets student civil rights activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), and they start a friendship without her knowing his real profession. 

Next, Ron phones up the Klu Klux Klan claiming to be a racist bigot, and local leaders invite him to attend introductory meetings. White and Jewish Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) impersonates Ron for the in-person meetings. Together they uncover the Klan's local activities, including a potential bombing plot. Meanwhile, Ron starts phone contact with the Klan's national leader David Duke (Topher Grace), who is attempting to upgrade the Klan's image and is planning a visit to Colorado Springs.

Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman is inspired by real events from Ron Stallworth's career. The film is a smoothly-delivered, hard-hitting and unblinking condemnation of racism and antisemitism persisting in American culture, as revealed through an audacious police investigation. And despite the serious subject matter, Lee makes sure to include a sharp streak of humour, almost in comic disbelief at the prevailing primitive mindsets.

Opening with the sacking of Atlanta scene from Gone With The Wind, Lee draws a straight line to the seething anger among white supremacists over the end of societal segregation and the 1960s civil rights movement, with Blacks perceived as unworthy sub-humans, and Jews thrown into the mix as equally despicable elements of society.

After tolerating menial assignments as a rookie officer and witnessing hidden and overt racism within the department, Ron talks his way to more meaningful assignments. He takes the initiative to open the cover on the sewer of hatred and with Flip's help descends into the filth. One possible side effect of blind bigotry is the inherent stupidity of idiots attracted to the cause, and in next to no time the black Ron (over the phone) impersonated by the Jewish Flip-as-Ron is being invited to join the movement as a card-carrying member of the Klan.

The film stares in disbelief at the unfathomable and sickening level of enmity hiding in plain sight, contrasted with Black students and civil rights movement stalwarts feeling their way towards empowerment. While the film is set in the early 1970s, Lee is blunt about the enduring modern applicability of the struggle for equality and dignity. David Duke's public three-piece suit disguise is presented as the door to political acceptability and future ascent to power, discussed in the film as an absurd outcome until the epilogue suggests otherwise.

For dramatic purposes the film fictionalizes the bombing subplot, allowing Lee to glide to a satisfying climax. A final phone call between Stallworth and Duke is unnecessary, and detracts from the film's postscript impact.

The performances are adequate, John David Washington and Adam Driver getting on with the job and staying out of the way of the narrative juggernaut. Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix, the most ominously deranged local Klan member, is a standout in the supporting cast.

In documenting a society still suffering from pockets of severe asininity, BlacKkKlansman is both authoritative and enraging.

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  1. This is easily Spike's best since at least Inside Man. The only place where we differ is that I thought the performances were excellent across the board with Adam Driver and Ashlie Atkinson (Connie) as my standouts.

    1. The performances were solid; I just found that none of the characters were provided with much of an in-depth backstory to sink their teeth into and provide texture. This was probably intentional, to keep the focus on the subject matter.


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