John David Washington as Ron Stallworth
Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman
Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas
Topher Grace as David Duke
Ryan Eggold as Walter Breachway
The pen may not be mightier than the sword, as anyone who ever took on a Roman centurion with a biro would agree. But for the auteur fuelled by a seething sense of social injustice, the rapier is deadlier than the sledgehammer. Until the closing shots of BlacKkKlansman, director and co-writer Spike Lee does more than control the rage. He refines it with riotous wit into a stiletto, and is all the more lethal for that.
In lesser hands (perhaps his own in earlier days), the temptation to livid polemic would have strangled the life out of the bizarre true story on which his most enjoyable film for years is broadly based. Shots of “Re-Elect Nixon!” posters take us back to 1973, when a rookie black cop and his Jewish colleague infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Any semi-historical biopic featuring white supremacists spewing the mantra “America first!” has little room for allegorical subtlety. Lee opens with Alec Baldwin, Saturday Night Live’s resident Trump impersonator, as a neo-Nazi recording a video rallying cry. “Do you really want your children going to school with negroes… Rapists, murderers…”
The brilliance of what follows stems from Lee’s ability to mirror the amused restraint of his hero Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American graduate who takes the Colorado Springs police recruitment tagline “Minorities welcome” on trust. “What would you do if another cop called you a n*****?” the chief asks in the interview. “Would that happen, sir?” he deadpans so cutely that the chief mistakes him for tragically naive and emits a despairing “Sheeeeeeeeeh…” Bored in the records office, Ron begs for a crack at undercover work, and answers another recruitment ad, this time from the local chapter of the KKK. His claim that “I can speak the king’s English, and I can talk jive” is no empty boast. Over the phone, chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) takes him for one of the Caucasian persuasion. “They want you to join the Klan?” asks a bemused chief. “You probably shouldn’t go to that meeting.” No sheeeeeeeeeh.
The solution is modelled on the seduction plot device in Cyrano de Bergerac and its derivative Roxane. Ron will be the voice, ringing Walter and later David Duke (Topher Grace, superb as a mannerly, almost effete grand wizard) for information. “I consider you a true white American hero,” Duke praises him. “Is there any other kind?” he replies with undetected sarcasm. He will feed the gen to his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). He’ll be the face, joining the sweethearts at their homes and on the shooting ranges where they target cardboard black people. He will need to dodge some bullets himself — the nastiest members strongly suspect him of being a Jew. He will also have to buy his own hood and robes. As the pair try to unravel a domestic terrorist plot as dumb and dangerous as its devisors, their racial confliction bubbles to the surface. Ron falls for black student union organiser Patrice (Laura Harrier) on an undercover trip to a meeting addressed by a charismatic Black Panther — not that one, Wakanda this ain’t — Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). He flinches when she refers to cops as “pigs” and again when she questions if he is really “up for black power”.
The product of a secular upbringing, Flip has barely thought about his Jewishness. “Why are you acting like you ain’t got skin in this game?” Ron chides him, in a devilish pun on being circumcised — or “circumstanced” as a moronic Klansman mangles it. Now that he is obliged to praise the Holocaust to avoid being killed, he thinks about little else. Always an intriguing screen presence, Driver beautifully underplays Flip with gently introspective languor. But it is Washington, part of a continuum stretching back to his father Denzel starring as Lee’s Malcolm X, who dominates as Ron, with a breakout performance of supreme confidence and borderline swagger worthy of his dad. Alongside the incessant laugh lines and sight gags (Ron asking for a proto-selfie when assigned to protect the visiting Duke, who rears up like a startled wild mustang at his touch to the shoulder), there is so much else to relish.
Lee seasons his film with fond and not so fond film references — posters of Blaxpoitation classics such as Shaft; Scarlett wandering zombie-like among the dead of Atlanta beneath the Confederate in Gone With the Wind; clips from The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 lynchfest which revived the fortunes of the KKK. At times he dilutes the acid with milky droplets of nostalgia for giant afros — Harry Belafonte as an old civil rights sage is almost buried beneath a circle of them — and early disco. He avoids the blind alley of all-cops-are-racist-killers hyperbole, portraying all but one as basically decent. This is no counsel of despair. Nor is it an early Obamaesque paean to hope and change. On the anniversary of the Charlottesville clash between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists — the one at which the President identified “some very fine people on both sides” — it could hardly be that.
Only at the end does he stop fishing the comic nuggets from the cesspool. Some would think this an even better film without its bludgeoning final shots of Duke celebrating Charlottesville as “the first step to taking America back”, and an upside-down stars and stripes fading to black and white. But while the pious accompanying caption reads “No place for hate”, there is a place for righteous anger. If Lee ultimately takes a sledgehammer to crack a nut… well, with a nut like the one in the Oval Office who refuses to disown Duke and his white knights, I think he can be forgiven for that.
Review by Matthew Norman, London Evening Standard