“This some fo’ real shit” reads the title card at the start of the newest Spike Lee joint, BlacKKKlansman. Based on the autobiography of Ron Stallworth, the African American detective who infiltrated a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan along with his Jewish partner detective Flip Zimmerman, the very fact that this is some ‘fo real shit’ in the first place is stranger than fiction.
But BlacKKKlansman is ‘some fo’ real shit’ in a much more haunting sense; throughout the film, Lee uses this 70s backdrop and his famously acerbic wit as a scathing commentary on the modern-day rise of neo-Nazism in mainstream American politics under Donald Trump. Just as Lee’s seminal Malcolm X biopic was set during the 50s and 60s but released the same year as the LA riots in 1992, highlighting the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of the police, the issues of police brutality, institutional racism and white supremacy at the forefront of BlacKKKlansman are as relevant as ever in 2018.
John David Washington, whose father Denzel won an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcom X in Lee’s biopic, turns in a star-making performance as the ambitious Ron Stallworth, who makes investigating the Ku Klux Klan his first duty as a detective. Stallworth realises that, as an African American, he cannot simply turn up to a Klan meeting undercover, so he enlists the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, played by the ever-watchable Adam Driver.
The actor cements himself as one of the most versatile actors working today after quiet performances in Patterson and Silence and more exuberant displays in Logan Lucky and as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga.
Eventually, their investigation reaches the highest echelons of the KKK when Stallworth finds himself communicating directly with grandmaster of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke (Topher Grace), who has lofty ambitions to infiltrate the mainstream with a more polished but equally fascist version of the ‘programme’. Grace steals all of his scenes as the charismatic leader of the Klan, constantly unaware that a black man sits down the other end of the phone line.
John David Washington and Adam Driver star in ‘BlacKKKlansman'.
An outspoken proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a risky decision for Lee to make a film where cops are the heroes – even if the villains are white supremacists. Police violence against African Americans has been a seemingly never-ending source of political unrest in recent decades, as documented in Lee’s earlier work, and the issue is tackled head-on in BlacKKKlansman when Stallworth is asked to go undercover at a Kwame Ture civil rights demonstration.
Ture’s proclamations of black pride and self-love resonate with Stallworth, who questions his loyalties to a police department that sees the speaker as a potential threat to national security, especially after meeting black rights activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Dumas wonders how a black man could ever work for the same institution that treats his people like second-class citizens, fulfilling the audience-insert role that Spike Lee himself often served in his earlier work.
To say that Spike Lee’s recent cinematic output has been patchy at best would be an understatement; his last critical and commercial success Inside Man was released twelve years ago, and his subsequent work has been met with a mixture of distain and indifference in the mainstream.
Fortunately, BlacKKKlansman producer Jordan Peele, whose sleeper hit Get Out came out of nowhere to become the most culturally relevant film of the 2010s, earning $255 million dollars at the worldwide box-office as well as three Oscar nominations and a victory in screenwriting, helps Lee effortlessly blend his provocative politics with the more commercial appeal of films such as Malcolm X, 25th Hour and Inside Man.
The results speak for themselves: at Cannes film festival, BlacKKKlansman received a six-minute standing ovation and won Lee Le Grand Prix, and it’s easy to see why. Though occasionally the analogies to the modern day are clumsy and the bumbling, comedic tone of the local KKK members seems at odds with the seriousness of their ideology, a shocking post-script montage puts the film disturbingly into context.
Despite all of the social improvements that have been made since the 1970s, white supremacists are as visible now as they ever have been and, just like David Duke prophesised, they’ve reached the highest office. The time for elaborate metaphors and subtly inserted politics, it seems, is over; with BlacKKKlansman, Spike Lee might have made the defining film of the Trump era.