A black man joining the Ku Klux Klan sounds like it could be the beginning to a terrible joke. It’s not – it’s the real life story of American police officer Ron Stallworth. And now, it’s the plot of semi-historical biopic (if that term is used somewhat loosely) BlacKkKlansman, brought to life by Spike Lee and the team behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out. That group alone – on top of a cast which includes John David Washington, Adam Driver and Laura Harrier at the helm – declares it a must-watch.
Spike Lee’s finest work in a decade – and, I dare to say, possibly his all time best – BlacKkKlansman does a lot yet somehow manages to do it all well. It’s a hard-boiled crime drama peppered with laugh-out-loud absurdist humour in only the right places, almost distracting you from the harrowing horror it’ll eventually circle back to. Not the usual Blumhouse brand of horror; rather, the type of horror that should have been left behind in the 70s, only terrifying when Lee drops an insightful parallel to make you realize how relevant it still is today. The balance between comedy and drama is masterful, yet the film still manages to hit all the right points in its underlying anti-racist sentiment.
Our hero is Detective Ron Stallworth (Washington) himself, rendered an outsider in a police department where casual racism runs rampant. When he is reassigned to the intelligence division, he finds welcoming open arms waiting for him in the most unlikely place possible – the Ku Klux Klan. Posing as a wildly racist white man (with a hilariously spot-on accent), Stallworth calls the KKK and manages to spew enough slurs and hatred to land in their good graces. His raw radicalist desire to infiltrate the chapter even results in a slip-up where he tells them his real name before he even realizes it. Immediately, he’s invited to meet with them to see if he’s truly got what it takes. The investigation is going well so far, but there’s one rather large obstacle: Ron Stallworth is black.
Stallworth teams up with Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), to get the infiltration under way by enlisting Flip to pose as him at KKK gatherings once he is recruited into the group with ease. Carrying the same convictions as Ron, playing nice with the KKK is certainly of no interest to Flip, but he falls into place with little to no difficulty, spouting off racist drivel with the rest of them. While this serves as a testament to Driver’s acting ability, it’s also done with the intent of showcasing a harsh reality: society may root racism in us deeper than we think.
Stylistically, BlacKkKlansman pays homage to the blaxploitation films of the 70s right down to the recurring theme meant to define some of the film’s key moments. It manages to hit all the right notes of the genre in subtle ways, save for a sequence in which Stallworth and his love interest run through the best of the best of blaxploitation films while their posters flash up on the screen – a scene that may sound out of place, but in context, offers a strong sense of pride.
This film has very little working against it – as usual, Spike Lee has managed to make a political piece with high rewatch value, and I now look forward to seeing if he manages to complete the seemingly impossible task of outdoing this one. It’s a (literally) explosive spectacle you can’t take your eyes off of, with satire that hits hard once the guaranteed initial laughter is out of the way.
The plot of BlacKkKlansman might sound like a joke, but the content of the film proves that even the most preposterous of ideas can come to fruition whether for better or for worse. Boasting bright critic reviews all around, BlacKkKlansman is a film you have to see for yourself, whether for the fascinating story, the artistic value or to have some light shed on an issue still plaguing our society to this day.
You can catch the BUFS screening of BlacKkKlansman at The Film House on January 17, with extra showings on Jan. 15 and Jan. 18.