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BlacKkKlansman review
A pair of cops - one African-American, one Jewish - team up to infiltrate the Klan.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Spike Lee

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin, Laura Harrier, Harry Belafonte


Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman isn't a remake of Ted V. Mikels' infamous 1966 grindhouse movie. Rather it's based on true events, the story of how rookie cop Ron Stallworth (played here in a star-making turn from John David Washington, son of Denzel) became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1978, despite being an African-American.

After being taken off undercover duties and frustrated with his desk jockey role in the intelligence department of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth comes across an advertisement taken out by the Klan in the classifieds section of a local newspaper. Posing as a disgruntled white man, Stallworth dials the number and begins the process of infiltrating the local chapter of the racist organisation.

BlacKkKlansman review

Trouble is, there's no way Stallworth can meet up with the local Klan-bangers, so he coerces a white cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into taking over the role for face to face meetings. However, Zimmerman is an equally unlikely Klansman, as he's Jewish! With Zimmerman as the face and Stallworth the voice, our black and Jewish heroes begin the task of taking down the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK from within.

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You'll be hard pressed to find a true story with as much dramatic potential as Stallworth's, but in this sloppy, ideologically contradictory, tonal mess, it's sadly a case of squandered potential. The script boasts four writers, two of whom are experienced African-American auteurs (Lee and Kevin Willmott, writer/director of the sharp satire Confederate States of America), two of whom are inexperienced white-American writers (Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz). I can't help wonder if the latter pair were brought in to ensure Lee and Willmott wouldn't write a film that might make middle class white Americans feel uncomfortable. As such it often feels like a movie made by two different creators, and it's no surprise that the most successful moments are those that exclusively feature black faces on the screen.

BlacKkKlansman review

Lee gives us three great scenes that remind us of his ability to use the screen to grab an audience and pull us into his milieu. Early on, while working undercover, Stallworth attends an appearance by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (played in rousing fashion by Corey Hawkins), finding himself torn between Ture's militant rhetoric and his own conservative beliefs. Lee shoots it like Keith Carradine's 'I'm Easy' performance in Robert Altman's Nashville, showing us the many faces in the crowd being individually impacted by Ture's words. Later, Lee throws a bone to exploitation cinema fans with a great debate between Stallworth and love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier, whose angelic features shrouded in a giant Afro made me think of Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago) on the merits of blaxploitation.

The most gripping scene comes towards the film's climax, as Harry Belafonte (seemingly playing an anachronistic version of himself), recounts a heart-breaking and anger-inducing lynching anecdote to Patrice and her activist friends. It's a scene that might (and should) inspire righteous fury, but it loses much impact by being intercut with the film's KKK villains, a bunch of broad Southern white trash caricatures designed to make middle class white viewers feel like they're distanced enough from them to not have to question their own ingrained prejudices.

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Elsewhere, Stallworth has to contend with the bullying of a racist white cop (only one?), who is practically a double of the awful character Sam Rockwell essayed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He's the sort of over-the-top oddball who could never really become a cop, but I guess he's easier to write than the more nuanced racist cops found in too many police departments. Ironically, the film ends with real life footage of the Charlottesville protests, when a bunch of affluent, well-heeled young white men led a racist, anti-semitic march, a million miles away from the Cletus and Earl types of BlacKkKlansman.

BlacKkKlansman review

The four writers also appear to frequently contradict themselves, not just ideologically (the message of the film is as much Blue Lives Matter as Black Lives Matter), but in plot continuity. Early on we learn of Zimmerman's Jewish heritage when it's revealed (through a line of dialogue rather than simply showing us???) that he wears a Star of David around his neck, yet later, after he's had a few meetings with the Klan, he tells us his parents didn't raise him as a Jew and it's something he hasn't ever given any thought to. Wait, what?

Beginning with an incredibly cringe-worthy Alec Baldwin cameo that recalls the funny-as-cancer sketch show SNL at its worst, BlacKkKlansman frequently interrupts its potentially compelling scenario with the broadest of comedy, giving us racists so broadly sketched they make the WASPish antagonists of your average '80s Rodney Dangerfield comedy seem well observed. Targeting racists through comedy is a dangerous exercise, as comedy is subjective, and the most difficult of genres to pull off. Comedy also requires an element of recognition, which is why most stand-up comics make their audiences laugh by giving them uncomfortable truths. Unlike Get Out, which made liberal white audiences laugh while also making them examine their own brand of bigotry, BlacKkKlansman is unlikely to make any white viewers leave the cinema questioning their prejudice, as its villains are unrelatable cartoon figures, and it ends on a scene that pushes the dubious idea that racist cops are a minority that the rest of the boys in blue are committed to flushing out. There was a time when Hollywood enabled Lee to make movies like Malcolm X, films that made no concessions to comforting white viewers. How we could use such movies now.

BlacKkKlansman is on Netflix UK now.