Word of Colour

BlacKkKlansman

Director: Spike Lee

Screenwriters: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee

Producer: Jordan Peele

Distributor: Universal Pictures UK

Special screening: Ham Yard Hotel

Review by Cherise Lopes-Baker

It was a six word pitch that caught Spike Lee’s attention: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’

Inspired by Ron Stallworth’s audacious personal account detailed in his book Black Klansman, Lee and Get Out’s Jordan Peele have created a 70s blaxploitation homage satirising the continuance of the notorious neo-nazi movement.

The movie follows Ron (played by a twinkling John David Washington) recruited as the first black Colorado precinct officer, as he works his way up from records to the intelligence unit.

As Ron goes undercover and falls for the president of the Black Students Union (BSU) Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier, he also masterminds his own intelligence mission by getting cosy with the KKK. He calls and charms its then national leader David Duke (Topher Grace) with a gratuitously complimentary take on white America.

He maintains his KKK credibility by sending his white partner Flip (Adam Driver) to any face to face encounters. Together they form ‘the Stallworth brothers’, collaborating to uncover potential bomb plots from the white terrorist cell.

As they investigate, Ron and Flip wrestle internally, and with each other, as to how much ‘skin  they have in the game as Black and Jewish men within the police system. Layered with documentary footage of Donald Trump and last year’s Charlottesville riots, Lee unambiguously draws parallels with the violence and the incomprehension of the 70s race wars.

True to form, Lee creates an immersive cinematic tone, drowning in funk and jive talk. The movie does an excellent job in underscoring the almost comical absurdity of the Klan rhetoric with the disturbing violence that accompanies it.

To set this into horrifying contemporary context, the film’s lead John David Washington revealed at the screening that the shooting targets (featuring black people) used in the KKK meeting scenes didn’t have to be custom made. They were freely “bought online, with next day delivery”.

While there are many opportunities for everyone in the audience to position themselves on the political left of these outrages, the movie fails to challenge the average white audience member who perpetuates supremacy, not only in the form of physical terror, but also in the form of insidious systemic policy measures.

BlacKkKlansman was clearly made to shame the vocal ‘blood and soil’ rioters, but it doesn’t successfully call out those who, to damaging effect, voted for Trump for ‘economic reasons’, or who perpetuate harmful rhetoric, microaggressions or neo-liberal positions.

Focusing on the outrage of blatant obscenities and unfettered violence, the film also skates over the deeply entrenched and continuing complicity of those in the police force who continue to protect the ‘bad apples’.

Although Ron’s intentions seemed to be to reform the system from the inside, he also spied on black rights organisations on behalf of the white police leaders. In a loud moment of silence, despite audience support, Lee refused to answer award-winning writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s question about Boots Riley’s criticism that despite purporting to be a true story, pivotal moments in the film have been fabricated.

One reality is that Ron also infiltrated a black radical organisation for three years and, according to counter intelligence programme papers, he helped to sabotage the organisation. Another is that his partner who helped him to investigate the KKK was not Jewish, and so had no proverbial ‘skin in the game’. Also, no cop was arrested for racist and abusive comments which were recorded by the entire department.

Against this backdrop, certain scenes take on a new and uncomfortable meaning. Lee dramatically cuts from the KKK chanting “White Power! White Power! White Power!” to the BSU chanting “Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!”.

In typical Lee fashion, the film doesn’t just hit on a point, it punches on it. White supremacists aren’t uneducated, they are imbecilic. White women aren’t agents of their own hate, they are pathetic, aimless vessels of the white man’s hate. Black activists aren’t radicals, but uncompromising and violent champions for a rightful cause.

The result is a moderate protagonist who changes the heart of his department and creates near instantaneous systemic change by the case’s end.

After the screening Spike Lee said: “Black people are not a monolithic group. We have our own journeys… As long as we have the same goal, people can take different routes to get there.”

Despite Lee and Riley’s opposing accounts, it is essential that this doesn’t suppress any critical commentary provoked by the film.

BlackKKlansman is on national release from 24 August 2018

Picture credit: Universal Pictures