In amongst Donald Trump’s latest scandal for allegedly paying hush money during his presidential election campaign to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actor, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, one cannot help but picture Spike Lee sat rather smug knowing he has called out the president’s true nature in BlacKkKlansman.
That smugness is also in part a knock-on effect of the film’s direct address to a modern rebirth of far-right wing politics. Agent Orange, as Lee calls the President of the United States, strangely feels like an address found in a Harry Potter book to He Who Must Not Be Named aka Voldemort. Yet, behind Lee’s own nickname for Trump, as is the case with his 2018 Cannes Grand Prix-winning film, it lays a more disconcerting truth that racial hatred possesses the ability to strip us all of our humanity.
Using the term ‘based on the true story’ as loosely as a pair of beat up Converse, Lee’s piece follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) on his journey as the old African-American cop in the Colorado Police Force in 1970s America. Upon joining the force, he is thrown into the records room until boredom strikes leading to request to change departments to become a detective. Accepting his requests, his senior officers place him at the centre of an operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
As Stallworth himself states, ‘You can do anything with a white man’, and so fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) enters the fray as his physical presence with Stallworth maintain the role of communicator via telephone with the KKK. Unfolding as a really bad prank call upon David Duke (Topher Grace), director of the Klan, the fundamental premise of BlacKkKlansman is darkly comedic towards outlining the idiocy of white supremacy.
Playing out as a defined genre flick in the ‘buddy cop’ setting, the film feels an extremely accessible Spike Lee feature to all audiences – a far cry from Chi-Raq or even Bamboozled. This permeating feeling of accessibility is an influence of the script arriving to Lee’s desk after Jordan Peele (Get Out) passed on the work due to his busy schedule directing Us and his acting career. Regardless of this factor, the re-writes on the script with Kevin Willmott, who worked on the previously mentioned Chi-Raq, imbue the film with a profound sensibility of humour.
Self-referential to the point of almost directly addressing the audience and the current sociopolitical environment of America, the dialogue has a power to push the audience to laughter, regardless of race. Still, the vocal address to the viewer is an alternative take to opening a discourse that is comparably negotiated in the director’s first feature film She’s Gotta Have It. Shifting to the cinematic components, no film of Lee’s would be cut without portraits, cross cutting, dual images or his iconic double dolly shot. All featuring heavily, these practises of his style come to elevate the genre filmmaking to new heights.
Interweaved into these aspects is an assured exhibition of Chayse Irvin’s cinematography. After working with the likes of Beyoncé on Lemonade, Sampha and Leon Bridges, the humour in the script transforms in a lyrical beat for Irvin’s camera to play along toward. Combining with the mastery of Lee’s well-known camera tilts or other playful practices, the seemingly conventional approach to the buddy cop action combines with the dexterous talents of those filmmakers involved in the cinematography, forging a piece of cinema totally distinctive.
Bookended by two acts that occur outside the parameters of the narrative, BlacKkKlansman, internal and external of the action, points its attentions towards the history of cinema itself. Taking inspiration from the pioneering craft of D. W. Griffith, aside from his position as a racist filmmaker in Lee’s eyes, in the film’s stand out scene references his cross cutting between two divided groups of people. Calling into question the communities we all, regardless of race, attach ourselves towards, a juxtaposition against the exercise of white and black power arises through this editing method.
Exercised in the few moments of the narrative, this timely reminder of how social injustices arise through a disregard for the idiocy of racism leaves one in a candid spotlight once the final credits and Prince’s Mary, Don’t You Weep have finished. Amidst the blues tones of the singer’s voice, an overwhelming sense of melancholy rests in these moments, a space away from the previous humorous tones of Stallworth and co. Though Lee does not possess some great revelation as to how we as a global society should end these injustices in American or in our own countries, he does postulate a profound truth in BlacKkKlansman’s ability to act as a genuine film of the ages.