As the first black detective in the Colorado Springs police department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is determined to prove his worth. Initially assigned to work in records, Ron gets an opportunity to work undercover, which leads to him getting reassigned to intelligence. Ron soon manages to establish contact with and infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan by impersonating a white man when he phones them. When ‘the organisation’ wants to meet him, Ron has his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) act as him in person.
Hopes have been high for Spike Lee’s latest, especially following its Grand Prix win at the Cannes Film Festival. The rebel director returns to the political roots of his heyday, where his movies of the 80s-90s included such features as ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, ‘Jungle Fever’, ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Malcolm X’ – and yet Lee infuses ‘BlacKkKlansman’ with modernism and a pointed contemporary commentary that holds you long after its final documentary moments, and that epic panning shot.
‘BlacKkKlansman’ has plenty for film aficionados to delve in from its redressing of classics like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to its references of blaxploitation films like ‘Shaft’ and ‘Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song’. Stylisations aside (and the film is far more pared back and accessible than Lee’s earlier work), ‘BlacKkKlansman’ will charm all audiences with its brilliant mix of genres. It’s historical and yet contemporary, a drama and yet a comedy, and a cop movie with action and thrills all jam-packed in too.
John David Washington establishes his style of acting as distinct from that of his father’s in such a way that you know we are going to see him do big things after ‘BlacKkKlansman.’ He has a subtler performance style than Denzel’s, though they share in common a tacit charisma. Driver is wonderful as always while Topher Grace is haunting in the role of real-life white supremacist David Duke. Laura Harrier also impresses as student activist Patrice Dumas. Her character can be described in a term that can be attributed to the movie as a whole – force of nature.
‘BlacKkKlansman’ is full of memorable scenes that could very well lead it being categorised a modern classic. In a rally scene, a speaker talks to the Colorado College Black Student Union, his words deeply touching the masses. The cinematography in the scene illuminates the black characters’ beautiful, hopeful faces, while the sound design (a mixture of individual proclamations and crowds cheering) is immersive and rousing. Shortly afterwards, the students sing and dance at a club with Ron in a joyful, euphoric bliss. Later, a scene where Zimmerman is initiated into the KKK is intercut with an elder activist played by Harry Belafonte recalling a lynching he witnessed to the Black Student Union. The calls to ‘white power’ versus ‘black power’ are stirring.
A smart, sharp film with a script that is hilarious and yet horrific, ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is one of the early Oscar contenders you’ll see this year and one of the best movies of the year so far.