This film won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2018 and Sight and Sound, the house magazine of the BFI, placed it at number 13 for the year’s best. It has Golden Globes nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Spike Lee has directed the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organisation aims to sanitise its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. It was produced by the team behind the Academy-Award winning Get Out.
BlacKkKlansman slips seamlessly from borderline-absurdist humour to all-too-real horror, conjuring an urgent blend of sociopolitical period satire and contemporary wake-up call. John David Washington gives a wonderfully wry and nuanced central performance as Stallworth, an afro-sporting idealist who becomes ‘the Jackie Robinson’ of the formerly all-white Colorado Springs police force. Graduating swiftly from records to intelligence, Stallworth answers a newspaper ad for the KKK, posing on the telephone as a budding white supremacist. When face-to-face meetings are required, Stallworth’s Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (a brooding Adam Driver) is drafted in to press the flesh at meetings where homemade terrorism is served up with cheese and crackers, the tension heightened by the weird domesticity. Soon, a relationship is being built with grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), the ‘smiling future’ of the organisation, who plans to lead it from cross burnings into politics under the banner of putting ‘America First!’ and making it ‘great again’. ‘The United States would never elect somebody like David Duke,’ says Ron, prompting an accusation of naivety from his boss and a ripple of ghoulish guffaws from an audience who know how this cruel joke ends.
What’s most remarkable is how well Lee balances the tonal shifts, provoking both laughs and gasps with a film built upon dualities: fact and fiction (Stallworth’s story is heavily fictionalised, yet rings ‘true’); past and present; inside and outside. Just as our central figure becomes two characters folded into one (Flip explicitly questions whether his former rejection of his Jewish heritage was a form of ‘passing’), so BlacKkKlansman revels in mirror images. From a brilliantly bilious opening appearance by Trump-scourge Alec Baldwin to the statesmanlike gravitas of Harry Belafonte, the ensemble cast packs a weighty punch, aided by standout turns from supporting players such as Ashlie Atkinson and Corey Hawkins. Yet the real star here is Lee. It’s great to see this admirably unruly film-maker back at the height of his provocative powers.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall