Movie Review: "BlacKkKlansman" Is Blisteringly Funny, But No Joke

Spike Lee sets fire to the KKK (and Donald Trump’s legacy) with the powerful yet cheeky crowd-pleaser BlacKkKlansman.

It used to be that the only sure-fire villains you could vilify without controversy were the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and maybe the Borg (and even during Star Trek’s peak, the Borg had their apologists).

Over the years, everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks to Dave Chappelle to the Coen Brothers to the Blues Brothers has had a crack at white nationalists. Their faces melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark and they got exploded in Django Unchained; every time, their violent end was meant to incite riotous applause.

In fact, they were deemed so laughably backwards and easy-a-target that not even Spike Lee felt they were worthy of his attention, across three decades of combustible joints about race relations in American society.

But those thwarted bogeymen have roared back to life, to the point that taking aim at Nazis or the KKK—in cinema, or on Twitter—now makes you incendiary.

And it’s into that inexplicable reality that BlacKkKlansman arrives, telling the true (albeit, slightly fictionalised) story of a black detective who went undercover in the KKK during the 1970s to unearth a conspiracy proving they were more dangerous than was appreciated at the time. It also has brilliant fun with the idiocy of the KKK’s membership, returning them to the realm of "punchline", where they belong.

It’s a dark realisation that a film mocking white nationalists in 2018 is politically provocative, but Lee, a director who never met a satirical point he didn’t want to underline, is the man for the job. His Lee-ness is a blessing here, not a curse, and BlacKkKlansman is both bitingly funny and stunningly effective as a call to arms.

John David Washington, son of Denzel, plays Ron Stallworth, a Coloradan cop sent to monitor Black Panthers because of his race. He’s more interested in the KKK. Affecting a white voice—barely—over the phone, he charms his way into a face-to-face meeting with the Klan’s local chapter, recruiting his white colleague, Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act as his avatar for the meeting, despite Zimmerman being Jewish (the KKK don’t take kindly to them either). Together, in person and over the phone, they earn the Klan’s trust, even convincing Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to cut through the red tape and get their application approved in time to attend a cross burning. Bureaucracy: it’s a thorn in the side of backwoods terrorist organisations too.

It’s uncanny how much young Washington’s clipped cadence matches that of his iconic dad, who collaborated with Spike on Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, He Got Game and Inside Man. Still, it’s not fair to say he’s simply being subbed in for his father. John David is a different person and a different actor, with his own sense of humour. (It’s magical how he earnestly tells his chief about his plan, saying, "With the right white man, we can do anything," whistling emphasis on the "wh".) But the biggest difference is his naïveté. His Ron Stallworth is a scamp, albeit one with serious intentions. Even he still has to learn the gravity of his affiliations—with the KKK and the police—the hard way, often through his revolutionary girlfriend, Patrice (Laura Harrier).

Driver is compelling too, coming to terms with his Jewish heritage, which, he admits humbly, meant nothing to him before he kept being accused of it by Klansmen. It’s Grace, however, with the most unexpected turn, and though it takes a while to buy his earnest ‘nice racist’ routine (having grown accustomed to Eric Forman’s sarcasm on That ‘70s Show), his tempered justifications of the Klan’s actions over his radio show becomes BlacKkKlansman’s terrifying motif.

The posters—and typographically nightmarish title—suggested this was going to be a Blaxploitation parody in the mode of Shaft or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And sure, the score by Terence Blanchard is built off an era-appropriate electric guitar riff, and the colour palette is full of mahogany and brown leather. (There is also a dance breakdown.) But Lee’s movie is largely just referential to his own body of work, culminating with his iconic dolly shot. BlacKkKlansman actually sees him in his least experimental mood in years. It’s tempting to say he was shepherded somewhat by producer Jordan Peele (Get Out), except that would be disrespectful to a lion like Lee. Perhaps he simply recognised the significance of this story today, and understands an audience-friendly package is the best way to share it.

Which isn’t to say he doesn’t prod and provoke his viewers. A moment in which the KKK chants "white power" is contrasted with black student activists chanting "black power". However, it’s important to note that Lee’s not making false equivalences (even if he explored the to-and-fro of racism between black and white in Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing). If anything, Lee’s emphasising the contrast between the chants; how one is born of hate, and the other, out of self-defense. And by the closing credits, there’s no missing Lee’s message.

When Stallworth gets Duke on the phone, he hears the dapper racist’s desire to "make America great again". At the end of the flick, we see footage of the real Duke endorsing Donald Trump for President, as well as Trump’s similar "America first" proclamation. It plays alongside footage of the tiki torch-toting protests by unashamed white nationalists in Charlottesville, and the terroristic act that claimed the life of Heather Hayer. BlacKkKlansman may be unsubtle, but it stunned my audience into silence. Hopefully, the silence is short-lived.


In Australian cinemas 16 August. Rated MA15+ for strong coarse language.

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Header Image: Universal Pictures



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