Film review: ‘BLACKkKLANSMAN’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Spike Lee emerged as a maverick auteur in the 1980’s with films like Do the Right Thing which explored provocative topics usually associated with racial politics in America. He’s been quiet for a few years, at least in terms of high profile feature films but with BlacKkKlansman he makes a powerful return, confronting Trump’s America within the guise of a funky, funny but remarkably fact-based, 1970’s cop drama.

The film adapts the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African American detective in the Colorado Springs police force. In 1979 (although it appears to be early 70’s in the film) Stallworth (a convincing John David Washington) unexpectedly decides to infiltrate the KKK. Duping local chapter head, Walter (Ryan Eggold) and no less than Grand Wizard, David Duke (a superbly accurate performance by Topher grace) over the phone, he lays the ground for white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to join the Klan. Working in tandem, Stallworth and Zimmerman expose the violent plans the Klan are hatching behind the silver-tongued Duke’s attempts to portray a more moderate face for the organisation.

Typical of Spike Lee films, BlackKkKlansman is visually and structurally inventive and a little slap-dash. For the most part this is a procedural drama and character piece filmed in nostalgic 70’s style colour but Spike weaves in newsreel footage, political debates between Stallworth and romantic interest activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and a bizarre rant at the start of the film with Alec Baldwin playing a raving racist nut. It all fits together bracingly if a little unsteadily.

Increasingly, Lee links his exploration of racially divided 1970’s America to the astonishing and appalling situation in the present day. Initially, he does this through sly references and by having characters casually drop the sort of comments that have stained twitter and news conferences over the last few years before making outright statements about the Trump regime.

Parts of the film will raise eyebrows such as Lee’s frequent paralleling of Klan and Black Power meetings. It might seem that he is condemning both equally but his message is about perspective and the fact that both sides are not on level playing fields or starting from an equal moral position. This is laid bare in the astonishing newsreel footage of Trump attempting to apportion blame to both sides following the appalling violence perpetrated against anti-racist protestors at the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally. Lee manages to balance powerful themes with humour, often depicting the Klan as hilariously inept but not so stupid as to be harmless dolts.

The film at times loses momentum and some attempts at violent action scenes are a little flat like something from an old TV show. The film could also have made more effective use of music.

Like many of Lee’s films it’s flawed but vital.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Biopic/ police drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Spike Lee.

Release date: 16th Aug 2018.

Running time: 135 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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