BlacKkKlansman tells the improbable but true story of an African-American detective in early 1970s Colorado who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a major comeback for director Spike Lee, but I wonder if he felt a certain reluctance approaching the project. This is an at times entertaining, at times profoundly ugly tale of white racism – of its toxic history in the US and its continuing legacy. It’s a subject that Lee has chronicled over his long career, and while he must surely wish things had improved by now here he is again, returning to the wounds of the past and the pain of the present. And yet the film shows no sign of any despairing fatigue: it is galvanising cinema, made with an urgency and anger that leaps from the screen.
We’re in the small city of Colorado Springs, and a young man called Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, who is terrific) becomes the first African-American recruit to the local police force. Appointed detective, he begins a telephone friendship with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the head of the local chapter of the KKK.
Of course Walter assumes Ron is white, an impression Ron is happy to cultivate by speaking in a kind of nasally whine (the film is, among many other things, a sharply drawn portrait of the many roles black Americans such as Ron have to adopt to get by in white society). Scenting an opportunity to make some arrests, Ron asks to join the Klan and Walter, outwardly amiable, inwardly rotten, invites him along.
Big problem, right? But Ron recruits his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (an appealingly restrained Adam Driver) to act as Ron for that meeting, and in the subsequent encounters with Walter and his less PR-sensitive fellow klansmen. Thus begins an exuberantly staged, high-stakes intrigue involving Ron and Flip maintaining this elaborate double identity with the Klan. It’s a twisty, incident-packed plot that Lee handles adroitly, and still finds room for Ron’s romance with African-American activist Patrice (Laura Harrier). There’s also a remarkable contribution from KKK Grand Wizard (and still active hatemonger) David Duke (played with silky menace by Topher Grace).
It’s no laughing matter when, at the end of the film, Lee shows a 2017 speech by the real-life David Duke praising Donald Trump
While BlacKkKlansman is often very funny, after a while the comedy runs dry, especially as the Klan plots violence, and the tone – out of necessity – takes an angrier and more unsettling turn.
An account of a young man who was murdered by a racist mob in the late 1910s, told to a group of black student activists with sombre authority by a character played by Harry Belafonte, shocks those young people into disgusted silence – as it did the cinema audience I was with. Just as disturbing is the footage from The Birth of a Nation, DW Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, a pioneering piece of American cinema that is now almost unwatchably racist.
BlacKkKlansman doesn’t just reach back into history. Lee recreates his 1970s setting in all its kitsch, soulful fullness, although this is also a film of acute relevance. “America would never elect someone like David Duke,” Ron opines at one point, to bitter laughs. It’s no laughing matter when, at the end of the film, Lee shows a 2017 speech by the real-life Duke praising Donald Trump (who implicitly returns the compliment by refusing to condemn white supremacist agitators).
This is then followed by the awful footage of the Charlottesville protests in which anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer was killed. The film is dedicated to her. With many other directors the memorial could have smacked of opportunism. Instead, Lee’s powerful, ferociously compelling movie, with its mix of profound sadness and stirring anger, feels an entirely appropriate setting for such a gesture.
Read The Big Issue’s cover interview with Ron Stallworth here