There is a view that film is simply a medium designed for entertainment and the cinema merely a source of escapism. This is a view which ignores a great deal of cinematic movements and the impact the medium has had throughout its history. One film which was more than simply entertainment was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), an ambitious feat that arguably defined cinema for decades, and is a work every film student at least comes into some form of contact with. It also, through its depiction of White Klansmen as saviours of the South (cutting down those they considered the lesser races and saving women from losing their honour), helped to restore the KKK and initiate a new era of racial persecution in America. Film always has the potential to change the way we see the world for better or worse. And in 2018, we have Spike Lee’s latest film Blackkklansman where a black cop in the 70s attempts to infiltrate the KKK who even sixty years later still screen and cheer for the climax of Birth of a Nation, because its imagery still has power. With luck, the same may be said of Lee’s efforts here as he has created a truly necessary film for 2018, one which will haunt and linger long after the credits roll.
It is a serious tale which doesn’t flinch away from extreme politics
Now for anyone who has doubts about seeing this film there are a number of reasons why it may seem off-putting given the current political climate. It is a serious tale which doesn’t flinch away from extreme politics. Spike Lee is far from subtle here, such as a scene where our lead finds it questionable that anyone like David Duke could ever become President. But the film isn’t entirely serious and there are a number of very funny moments throughout, often poking fun at the Klan’s inability to detect who they’re talking to over the phone.
The scene which initiates the film’s premise, with young cop, ‘Ron Stallworth’, first calling the KKK for instance, is brilliant. It comes almost out of nowhere so it catches both the audience and the characters in the room off-guard, hilarious and somewhat chilling given the language he uses to sound authentically bigoted. And while the politics of this film are more than evident it isn’t as simple as one would initially think. Stallworth’s position as a cop puts him up against, understandably, the very people who the Klan persecutes as they have little to no faith left in the often-racist police force he is trying to change. While the Klan watches Birth of a Nation and cries out for white power, there’s a parallel to black students listening to the words of their elders as they describe lynching and the unjust system they are faced with and crying out for black power.
The tension is expertly well maintained throughout as the investigation comes under further pressure and the entire piece builds with impeccable pacing which makes it feel like a much shorter film to its climax
This is a powerful film, one which delves deep into the injustices of the 70s and how (in many ways) little in has changed. Its depiction of the Klan doesn’t demonise them but instead examines how they come to normalise their racist beliefs and while some are more extreme than others, they are human beings with a twisted ideology that leads them to believe and do terrible things. The tension is expertly well maintained throughout as the investigation comes under further pressure and the entire piece builds with impeccable pacing which makes it feel like a much shorter film to its climax. While the film could easily have ended within its own time, Lee takes things further with an epilogue, which I won’t spoil, but it does complete the mission statement this film sets out with perfectly.
John David Washington and Adam Driver are our leads and both of them are outstanding. They have a wonderful dynamic and both manage to convey their frustrations and fears the case brings out in them to great effect. The score is brooding and features as its highlight a recurring guitar riff that is perfect. Upon first hearing it in a scene where Stallworth comes across a Klan shooting range with targets eerily similar to himself, you will hope that it just replays throughout the entire film as it captures the mood Lee is going for perfectly. And then it does. The directing is not as experimental as many of Lee’s other efforts. It’s for the most part conventional save for a handful of shot choices, such as the choice to depict a speaker’s audience through floating heads in awe rather but if it reaches more audiences with a more mainstream look then this is hardly a strike against it.
It’s a film which is painfully relevant to the troubled times we live in without lecturing its audience
Overall Blackkklansman is a Spike Lee film. If you struggle with his direct approach to racial politics or his retelling of a true story which heightens and exaggerates for dramatic effect then this film may not be the easiest thing to swallow. But I still would encourage it to be seen. It’s a film which is painfully relevant to the troubled times we live in without lecturing its audience. It allows for a multitude of perspectives to see themselves within the characters, it tells a compelling story with excellent pacing and a finely tuned script and it left many an audience member I sat with in shock or on the brink of tears. Cinema can be more than entertainment, and Blackkklansman is another example of how it can be so much more.