By Steven Sheehan.
Apart from the odd genre diversion Spike Lee has remained a director willing to place social and racial issues at the front and centre of his films and the title of his latest release – BlacKkKlansman tells you little is about to change. Although, it feels like a very long time since he made a film that couldn’t the resist the urge to draw a sledgehammer on the audience and begin swinging.
Long-time viewers of Lee’s work will know he rarely does subtle. Even at the peak of his powers with films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and 25th Hour there was always a point where the message was put on full blast. The difference is back then his moments of rage were on the money. Now he looks like a director too conscious of his efforts to remain relevant.
Set in 70s Colorado Springs BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of black police officer Ron Stalworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of a local Klu Klux Klan chapter. He strikes up a friendship with the regional leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) over the phone – but for obvious reasons – cannot meet in person.
It is left to his white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to become the Caucasian Ron Stalworth, while the real version continues to develop the relationship by phone, even going so far as to strike up a relationship with the Grand Wizard and head of the Klu Klux Klan himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Meanwhile, the real Stalworth’s relationship with black student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) sees him hide his profession as it conflicts with her strong ideals about how the police force mistreat and abuse people of colour.
As absurd as the story sounds, Lee uses it to connect the dots through American history from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation film which resurrected a dying KKK, through to the 70s black power movement and into the present day with the Trump presidency, the rise of the far right and police killings of innocent black people.
For the first two acts, it seems as if Lee will keep his sledgehammer safely locked away but he more than compensates in a ridiculous final 40 minutes. A thin plot is elongated over 90 minutes before suddenly lurching into overdrive without knowing where to end.
Early on Stalworth is told he will face significant discrimination as the first black police officer on the force. Yet, apart from one racist caricature the rest of his colleagues couldn’t be more accommodating. It seems completely at odds with the reality of being black in America during the 70s and joining an organisation renowned for its institutionalised racism.
The KKK members rightly remain the point of comedic ridicule throughout but their obvious stupidity lessens the potency of their threat and their imbecilic actions remain funny instead of troubling. Lee’s tonal inconsistencies also surge back to the fore and none more so than in a scene cutting between Harry Belafonte’s “Black power!” cry and the KKK’s ceremonial howl of “White power!”
Rather than feel the weight of the message, the heft of BlacKkKlansman’s two hour plus runtime bogs you down the longer it drags on. Spike Lee gets everything he needs off his chest but how much of it will stick in the mind is open to question.
BlacKkKlansman is released in cinemas on Friday 24th August.