Riffing on 70s Blaxploitation films but very much speaking to today's racial tensions, BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best work in years
Following on from Chi-Raq, Spike Lee returns with satirical comedy BlacKkKlansman, his adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s autobiographical account of his experience as Colorado Springs’ first black cop during the 1970s, and his infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan.
Don’t be fooled by the 70s setting, however – Lee is taking a squarely aimed swipe at the racial tensions of contemporary America. He employs the tropes of Blaxploitation films, while drawing on the tragic events of Charlottesville, as well as taking plenty of time to point fun at the Trump administration through a series of overt but very funny gags.
John David Washington (son of Denzel) plays Stallworth, a rookie in the Colorado Springs Police Department who has set his sights on taking on a case that will make a difference. He convinces his chief of police that his time would be better served as an undercover cop, and rashly calls the local chapter of the KKK, faking his white supremacist credentials in a series of increasingly offensive racist statements to gain membership. But in his eagerness, he makes the schoolboy error of using his real name – he needs a new plan. Unable to actually meet up with the Klan for obvious reasons, he convinces his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who's Jewish, to act in his stead and join him on the case.
For the most part, this comedic set-up is smartly handled, counter-balanced with a sharp, hard-hitting political edge. At one point in the film Lee uses the news footage of Charlottesville to great effect, and achieves the same impact taking clips from The Birth of a Nation, which is screened in the film at a KKK gathering attended by the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace). There is also a loose, uneven love story between Stallworth and the president of the Black Student Union, Patrice (Laura Harrier), but it does allow Lee to explore Stallworth’s conflict as a police officer and his identity as a black man.
Lee’s heightened stylisation is refreshing, far removed from the hard-hitting realism of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which takes place in roughly the same era. His message is clear and present throughout, even if the plot is a bumpy ride. As the credits roll you release this is Lee’s best work in years, showing that the journey towards racial equality still has a long way to go, and that for all the progress that has been made, it can quickly be rescinded when the wrong people are in power.
BacKkKlansman had its world premiere at The 2018 Cannes Film Festival – for more Cannes coverage, click here
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