Blackkklansman movie review: 'It is outrageous. It is bonkers. It might also be one of the best films of the year'
The madness begins in the tagline: “Dis Joint is based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. Yes, indeed. This fabulously assembled Spike Lee joint has, for some reason, been labelled a comeback, too. To be honest, I wasn’t aware that Spike Lee had gone away (2015’s Chi-Raq was a bit of a hoot — check it out). But, I will admit, the man hasn’t turned heads like this in a long time.
The name of the game is BlacKkKlansman, and the story is as tricky to grasp on paper as it is on screen. But it happened. In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth — the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department — went undercover to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, it is outrageous. It is bonkers. It might also be one of the best films of the year.
The man playing Stallworth is John David Washington (Denzel’s young fella, would you believe), an actor who appears to have come out of nowhere, but will soon be everywhere. That’s how much of a mark he leaves here. There is magic, too, in the casting of young Adam
Driver as the other side of Ron Stallworth’s secret identity. We should explain.
It’s 1972. Ron Stallworth has literally wandered in off the street and signed up for a job in the Colorado Springs PD. First, he’s placed in the records room. Later, he makes a fuss about how valuable an asset he could be as a detective. And, after a spot of convincing, he is assigned to go undercover at a civil rights rally, where he meets and, subsequently, falls for, an activist named Patrice (Laura Harrier). Much later, Ron is assigned to intelligence.
One day, he is sitting at his desk, reading the paper, when he spots an ad for the Ku Klux Klan. He picks up the phone, calls the number, adopts a ‘white voice’, and effectively signs himself up to the KKK. His befuddled colleagues can’t believe their ears.
When the boss asks him what he’s up to, Ron suggests a plan so downright ludicrous, it might actually work. What if he were to establish relations with the KKK — all the way up to the ‘Grand Wizard’, David Duke — and spend the next few months, sitting in on their meetings, running them around in circles, infiltrating their hate and, eventually, exposing them for what they are?
All he needs is a white man to play him on the field, so to speak. Enter Driver as a Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman, who, like everybody else in the department, somehow agrees to go along with this operation. Oh, and Ron doesn’t say anything to Patrice. No, that would be dangerous.
It’s an alarming premise; an outrageous true story that remained a secret until after the real Ron Stallworth retired from the police force in 2005 (he later wrote the book from which this sizzling display takes its cue).
Spike Lee was all over it — so, too, was Get Out’s Jordan Peele, who serves as a co-producer. And, despite criticism from some, regarding the film’s narrative (apparently, it plays fast and loose with some of the facts), BlacKkKlansman is a smashing piece of cinema.
It works brilliantly as a dark comedy; it works as a muscular, historical drama that educates as much as it entertains; it works as a thrilling cop flick. It works, basically.
Most of the cogs turn easily and effectively, with Lee — playing at the top of his game — pulling off the mother of all balancing acts, to present a weird, wacky and whip-smart offering. It’s pretty damn cool in places, too (Terence Blanchard’s snazzy score is a winner).
Driver, essentially giving us two performances, is superb. Topher Grace (portraying David Duke) has mastered the maddening tics and childish outbursts of the archetypal right-wing nutjob. We’d love to have seen more of Laura Harrier.
The star of the show, however, is John David Washington. Forget his famous dad for a moment — the man is a triumph in his own right; a cool, confident and collected performer whose authoritative presence here bodes well for the future.
The final scene brings us forward in timeto remind us how much has changed — or, rather, how much hasn’t. Indeed, this can be a frightening watch. It’s also Spike Lee’s finest joint in years.
Drama. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace. Director: Spike Lee. Cert: 16
Read Paul Whitington's review: Blackkklansman 5 star movie review: Spike Lee's searing satire hits the target