In 1992, director Spike Lee brought to our screens the powerful and formidable Malcom X, a biopic looking towards the future with hope and a sprinkle of brightness. But twenty-six years later, it seems that films with this sort of resonance, yet again calling to resistance, are still incredibly needed and necessary. In that respect, Spike Lee’s new drama feels like a monumental slap in the face, a reminder that the creation of movements, such as the well-known Black Lives Matter, only means black people are still fighting an ongoing battle.
In BlacKkKlansman, John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son) stars as smart and savvy Ron Stallworth, who, in the late 1970s, works towards breaking down several boundaries one after the other. First, by becoming the very first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force. Second, by successfully infiltrating a local Klu Klux Klan group, with Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and duping the ‘‘Grand Wizard’’ of the K.K.K. David Duke (Topher Grace) at the same time. And if the story sounds so far-fetched but convincing still, it is because Spike Lee’s telling a real-life story. The real Stallworth’s memoir ‘‘Black Klansman’’ serves as Lee’s main inspiration for the film.
As we follow Ron’s footsteps early on in his career, John David Washington shows a tremendous performance of calm strength, completely engaging into his character’s emotions and translating them for the audience to embrace. Ron and Flip discover that infiltrating the K.K.K. is a long-winded process which involves exploring what defines them both on a very personal level. Fitting in a organisation based on hatred which teaches to anyone who is willing to listen that being black or Jewish is incompatible with an American identity, isn’t exactly effortless. Flip bares a white face when attending K.K.K. gatherings and Ron mimics a ‘white voice’ when calling to speak to David Duke. Together, they represent the two improbable sides of the same fictional Ron Stallworth (yes, real Ron did use his real name for his real undercover operation, which adds to the tragicomedy of the film). Ron’s character is as complex as the impossible task he has to accomplish. He is also a fount of paradox for the time: he owns a K.K.K. membership card whilst being black, he’s black whilst being a cop, he’s a cop whilst dating Patrice (Laura Harrier), a Black Panther activist who believes that pursuing empowerment for the black community whilst being a police officer is impossible.
Lee skillfully mixes a dose of romance and a corrosive humour with the seriousness of the topic addressed, offering a film to make you laugh and think, and that’s why BlacKkKlansman works. It is all at once a thriller, a wake-up call and a dark comedy that, without feeling like a lecture, stares the audience in the eye saying aloud: ‘If you think racism, bigotry and violence are all in the past, think again!’. To illustrate his point, Spike Lee displays a couple of shocking scenes, all of them revolting. To begin with, a clip from the widely famous Gone with the Wind, with its confederate flag flying, is chosen as the opening scene. Elsewhere, Lee puts us face to face with real horror when Harry Bellafonte (first actor to have stood up and spoken out for black civil rights), recalls the heart-wrenching but true story of Jesse Washington, lynched in front of a delighted crowd in Texas in 1916. Again, at the end, fiction and reality collide in a parallel that freezes the blood as we witness footage of the recent Charlottesville counter-protest and the face of its victims fading in a black and white American flag, the stripes side by side yet divided.
‘‘You must define beauty for black people, and that’s black power’’ declares Black Panther persona Kwame Ture in a meeting Ron is assigned to attend, and of course, BlacKkKlansman makes a point of highlighting this sentence constantly. Colourfully, Lee excels in showing the gracefulness of that beauty thanks to a camera largely focusing on faces in the crowd: two women here, a man there, and suddenly their features surface in and out of the shadow through a perfect chiaroscuro. Same goes with the impeccable costume design displaying the eye-popping fashion of the 70s, courtesy of designer Marci Rodgers.
With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee delivers a film meant to shock, meant to disturb, meant to be uncomfortable, but thanks to great pacing and an entertaining plot, the pill seems a bit less difficult to swallow. Because in the end, BlacKkKlansman is as striking and effective as a fist in the air or a knee on the ground.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.