Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is ostensibly about the real life story of a black cop in the 1970s who, along with his Jewish partner, successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
But what it’s really about is all the terrible things that are happening to black people right now. Lee’s greatest achievement – and there are many – is the way he layers our current reality over the historical one, with his cop yarn functioning as both a thrilling biopic in its own right, and a meta-commentary on the here and now.
It’s brimming over with righteous anger, with each terrible racist beat from the 1970s echoed by current events. Police brutality against black people. The continued use of the confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. A far-right leader with designs on the White House. White people desperate to ‘make America great again’.
It begins with a bizarre sequence featuring Alec Baldwin as a McCarthy-esque figure directly addressing the “American people” in some kind of racist propaganda video, with black and red images projected over the scene until you can only see the glint of his spectacles. The character is never again seen or referenced, but it sets a tone that continues throughout: revulsion, tempered by humour (because these men are ridiculous), then untempered again when you realise these people still hold positions of power.
John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the cop whose memoirs the film is based upon. He’s the first black officer in Colorado Springs and is given the crappiest job in the station, fetching records and sucking up abuse. But before long, he’s recruited to go undercover in the black student community, of which the establishment was terrified.
This is a bit of a conflict, with Stallworth – previously apolitical – spying on a community to which he feels a growing affinity. So he decides to gun for the KKK instead, duping an idiotic – but dangerous – chapter of the organisation into making him a member, through the proxy of his white Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver.
What follows is a kind of pitch-black police procedural comedy, with Driver playing the straight man to Washington’s charismatic lead. Lee also riffs on the role of people of colour in cinema, with Stallworth an overt nod to the ice-cool heroes of 1970s Blaxsploitation movies, with his mushroom afro and gold medallion.
Subtle it ain’t, but these are unsubtle times, and I can’t think of a directors whose polemic against an unjust system I’d rather watch.
As the film closes we’re presented with images of the Charlottesville rally and the murder of a protestor by a white supremacist, and the thought that clings to you as you leave is ‘how is this still happening?’