In recent years the prolific Spike Lee’s output has mostly passed under the radar in Australia. That will change thanks to BlacKkKlansman, one of his wildest, angriest and bravest efforts.
While there’s humour all through his epics from Do the Right Thing to Bamboozled to Inside Man, this is intended as a comedy, albeit one of an extremely uncomfortable kind where the depiction of the past is a direct and shocking reflection upon the right here and damn now.
Drawn from the memoir by Ron Stallworth and taking place somewhere in the 1970s, this has Ron (wonderfully underplayed by John David Washington, son of Lee’s frequent star Denzel) becoming the first black cop in the Colorado Springs police department. Bored by a desk job, he’s later allowed to work in intelligence and goes undercover at a speech given by Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where he meets radical student Patrice Dumas (the excellent Laura Harrier).
A relationship seems imminent, but it’s compromised by Ron’s inability to tell the truth about his job, especially when, on a whim, he rings the local KKK (“You have reached the Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Please leave a message.”). Forced to send his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to meet the KKK under his name (and despite Flip’s Jewish roots), this shifts from sharp character comedy to something far darker and more disturbing, although you will still laugh. And, hopefully, feel guilty about it.
Filling the Klan’s mouths with hideous slurs in a way even harsher than the dialogue in Do the Right Thing, Lee ensures that the talk stops being confronting and starts being funny, then ridiculous, and then tedious. The real Stallworth also talks by phone to unsuspecting Grand Wizard David Duke. He is played by Topher Grace, and his easy-going persona is used to show the politely banal face of hatred.
Demonstrating the influence of Get Out creator Jordan Peele (a producer here), Lee’s film seems like it’s going to follow a standard narrative path, but then he pulls the rug out altogether. There are no happy endings and this is no comedy either, as we hauntingly conclude with a flash-forward to 2017 where nothing has changed.
BlacKkKlansman is in cinemas from Thursday, August 16