Spike Lee's latest joint is a fun true crime caper with its fist clenched. Despite some tonal inconsistencies, BlacKkKlansman effectively condemns the present by reflecting on the past; conveying its message with the force of a protest march.
In Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X, a class of African-American children stand from their desks and proudly proclaim ‘I am Malcolm X.’ Among them was John David Washington, son of the film’s star Denzel Washington, who would unknowingly wait sixteen years before headlining his own Spike Lee joint.
The young boy speaking from his desk in Harlem would have gazed forward through oppression with hope that things were changing. As might of Washington in ’92, with Malcolm X receiving critical acclaim at the peak of Lee’s significance while the black experience cemented itself in popular culture. But the cyclical route of Washington’s career sees him meeting with Lee again in a time unsettlingly similar to both. The product is BlacKkKlansman, a film which ties two periods of racism together in a noose which hangs around the neck of the notion of “post-racism” and the state of the present.
Prefaced by the playful Lee statement, ‘this some fo’ real shit,’ BlacKkKlansman spins the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer who heads an undercover investigation to expose the threat of the Klu Klux Klan. It is a set-up which allows Lee to explore oppression on a broader scale, with the Klan presented as an iconographic caricature of prejudice, ignorance and stupidity in the shadow of the oppressed who remain one step ahead.
Lee’s position here, regardless of the line which marked the start of Washington’s career, is more in keeping with the liberalism of Martin Luther King Jr. than the aggressive philosophy of Malcolm X. Stallworth vocally questions the weaponization of African-Americans, attacks the stigma of ‘pigs’ in the black community, and challenges the Black Panther movement in an effort to suggest that villainising groups is itself an act of oppression. This isn’t to say that the film lacks an edge however; much to BlacKkKlansman’s commandment, Lee’s raised fist which frequently stuns with its punches also extends into an open hand.
Several blows are directed toward cinema too. An extended sequence critiques the effect of the problematic yet definitive D.W. Griffith epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and another engages with the debate surrounding the Blaxploitation movement which offers a clear influence here. As a result, Lee is at his most reflective and formally experimental. The film’s cathartic wake-up call of an epilogue, which comes from far of left-field, deploys documentary footage from practically yesterday to not only provide a definitive full stop to BlacKkKlansman’s message but also follow it with a sequence of exclamation marks.
Consequent of such bold moves though are some inconsistencies in tone. BlacKkKlansman borders on Coen-esque whim complete with soulful flourishes of vintage Van Peebles before it neglects its comedic standing for documentary realism with several moments that blend fiction and non-fiction. Arguably, this only serves to give emphasis to the very real ideas that Lee has on his mind. Yet, it makes for a somewhat fractured experience which struggles to walk the fine line between the superficial and the viscerally affective, leading the potential tension of its central scenario to suffer.
Regular Spike collaborator Terence Blanchard does his best to give the experience its consistency. The poignant twang of BlacKkKlansman’s theme oozes with intrigue as much as it does heroism. The only shame is that Washington’s performance is less commanding than his musical accompaniment; his inexperience showing in a mostly one tone performance which does just enough to carry the film alongside Driver.
In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee and John David Washington have completed a circle of poignantly ironic roundedness. From the young man standing against oppression with his sentiment in a 1992 film depicting a figurehead of the 1960s civil rights movement, to a forward-thinking black police officer during the 1970s in a film with a lot to say about the present, Lee and Washington have in effect commented on the prolonged duration of racism. This is a film which champions unity, a banner written in thick black ink which reads ‘all the power to all the people’ and entertains along the way. With its fist firmly clenched and raised high, BlacKkKlansman is some too real, fo’ real shit that is impossibly hard to shake.
BlacKkKlansman (2018), directed by Spike Lee, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate 15.