Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is unashamedly made for Trump's America

by James Robins / 11 August, 2018

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In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's latest drama based on a true story, a black cop infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s tough to do satire in this age of cartoon tyrants and absurdist goons. Sacha Baron Cohen is attempting it with Who is America? And there’s Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live take on Donald Trump: inflated, blustery, fish-faced, not that far removed from reality. The heavy lifting, in other words, has already been done for you.

Now we have BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), a fierce and fiery drama based on the true story of black Colorado cop Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel), who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and had his membership personally signed and approved by the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace), last seen running for the US Senate in 2016.

Riffing on the blaxploitation pictures of the 70s – celluloid heat and energetic grooves – Lee’s film is both subversively hilarious and utterly uncompromising. Pleasures here are very guilty indeed.

Just witness Ron on the phone to Duke, putting on a pompous white-man voice, telling him just how much he hates the blacks and Jews. Or when he sends fellow cop Flip (Adam Driver) to Klan meetings to impersonate Ron’s rancorous creation. Though, as a Jew, Flip is no more suited to the task.

Which leads to a moment that epitomises the film’s simultaneous horror and humour: Flip, hooked up to a lie detector by white supremacist lackey Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), having an argument about whether the Holocaust was a fraud or a beautiful and enviable thing.

Here we get to an irony: fascism is a pressing danger while also being eminently silly, its leading figures worthy of mockery and ridicule. Of course, Lee could never get away with it if it wasn’t for Ron’s subterfuge; if it wasn’t for a greater good.

But there are many things Lee doesn’t get away with. He doesn’t quite have the courage to let his art speak for itself. He sacrifices narrative drama for documentary prescience. There’s a bomb plot present, yet we never feel any hint of tension. Lee is too busy trying to pack in as many allusions to the current era as he can.

To be sure, his purpose is polemic; to reflect back at us an earlier moment of racist fracture and point out that era’s parallels to the present. The result, in the end, is didactic and hectoring. By the time we get to a room of Klansmen chanting “America First!”, the point has already been taken, and a pre-credits sequence of footage from the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville last year, which left one counter protester dead, feels like overkill.

Video: Focus Features

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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