BLACKKKLANSMAN vividly shows history has a way of informing the present

Director Spike Lee is on mighty form with his new film BLACKKKLANSMAN, an incredible true story superbly told with both horror and humour.

History has a way of repeating itself and this thought was very much in my mind as I watched director Spike Lee‘s forthright new film BLACKKKLANSMAN. There are films that entertain and there are films that educate. These aren’t the only two types of movies but Lee has deftly mixed those two elements by using humour to tell the incredible true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who in 1979 infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If you’re looking for a pleasant, unchallenging evening at the movies, then this possibly isn’t the film to choose. But if you want to learn something important as well as see the unfortunate way that little has changed in our society since the civil rights era, then go and see Lee’s film. It will make you flinch at the brutality of human beings and then make you laugh at the absurdity of these extraordinary events.

Adam Driver as Flip, Michael Buscemi as Jimmy and John David Washington as Ron in BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver as Flip, Michael Buscemi as Jimmy and John David Washington as Ron

John David Washington (son of Denzel and just as talented) plays Ron Stallworth, an eager and earnest young man wanting to make a difference in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. He has the idea of joining the police force as a way doing this but the top-brass stick him in the records room rather than on the streets and very soon he’s frustrated at his lot. However, a Black Panther meeting that’s to be held in town becomes the perfect opportunity for Ron to go undercover. And no sooner than his Chief of Police (a very wry Robert John Burke) has seen him ably carry out the assignment, Ron is then responding to a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be white. His colleagues look on aghast but Ron has a way with words and the Klan are interested in meeting him.

At this point, of course, there’s a problem with that tiny detail. So Ron suggests that his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (a blisteringly good Adam Driver) impersonate him as a white supremacist at the meeting. Flip goes along with Ron’s idea and in no time at all is making firm friends with the local Klan members. They completely buy into the notion that the guy they’ve connected with on the phone and the guy they are meeting is Ron Stallworth. And as Flip begins to move closer towards the Klan’s inner circle, there is the possibility of meeting with the Grand Wizard himself David Duke, portrayed as a smooth bureaucrat by a brilliant Topher Grace. However, one Klan member, the dangerously volatile Felix Kendrickson (a chilling Jasper Paakkonen) doubts the Ron Stallworth that Flip is presenting and makes it his mission to prove he’s an imposter.

John David Washington as Ron and Laura Harrier as Patrice in BlackKklansman

Washington with Laura Harrier as Patrice

The real Ron has a problem too since encountering the gorgeous and committed activist Patrice Dumas (a vivacious Laura Harrier) when he was undercover at the Black Panther meeting. He’s very much attracted to her but is torn whether to tell her who he really is, because of her understandable antipathy towards the police. That choice may soon be taken out of his hands though when he and Flip learn of the Klan’s plans to silence anybody who opposes them. And so Lee presents us with a parallel in the two stories of Ron and Flip, who we discover in one tremendous speech that he’s been hiding his true Jewish self for years in order to try and fit in with his white, WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) colleagues. And that by going undercover, he’s realised what a lie he’s been living.

“I’d never thought about ritual or heritage, now it’s all I can think about.”

Just as Ron is hiding his true self from Patrice. Flip, of whom we know little of as a character in relation to what we know of Ron, becomes heroic in our eyes and a more than worthy partner for the impassioned Ron. What becomes more troubling though in one of the last shots of the movie, is that Flip is shown in a new light. It’s something that perplexed me on first viewing and quite what this means may only be answered by Lee on the DVD/Blu-ray extras. Of course, playing a character on the knife edge of being sympathetic or reprehensible is possibly why the supremely talented Driver was cast, as he’s simply one of the finest exponents of playing that kind of duality in cinema at the moment.

What Lee and his director of photography Chayse Irvin do show us unequivocally in the film is how this story holds up a mirror to what’s currently happening in America (and elsewhere in the world) with the disturbing rise of the far-right. They include footage of the riots in Charlottesville in 2017 where neo-Nazis and white supremacists clashed with police and tragically civilians, as well clips of Black Lives Matter activists protesting against them. As I said, this is a movie that will challenge you while you’re watching it. And as it’s taken me a while to write this review, with each week that’s passed since seeing the film, I’ve read article after article of events happening right now that make BLACKKKLANSMAN more and more relevant. Bravo Spike Lee for creating a piece of art that so vividly does that.