Sometimes you see a film that simply exceeds your expectations – and for me, BlacKkKlansman is just such a film. BlacKkKlansman’s director Spike Lee has a respected back catalogue of movies that are hard-edged, controversial and undeniably honest. With a focus on the African-American community and themes such as racism, urban crime and poverty, he has become known for being a filmmaker with an uncompromising message of truth. Throughout his career, Lee has been nominated for 2 Oscars – one in 1990 for Best Screenplay for Do the Right Thing, and then a second nomination in 1998 for Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls. He was also awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2016. So in some respects, BlacKkKlansman is somewhat of a breakout film for Lee. Not only is it his most commercially successful feature to date, but it is also his most critically successful feature with a total of 6 Oscar nominations, including 3 personal ones for him (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay).
Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows the memoirs of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) – Colorado Springs first black policeman in the 1970s. In an effort to prove himself, Stallworth unwittingly infiltrates the inner circle of the Ku Klux Klan and befriends leader of the KKK, David Duke. With Stallworth acting as the ‘voice’ and his police partner Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) acting as him in person, together they go undercover to expose the truths of the KKK’s white supremacist world.
John David Washington’s performance as Ron Stallworth is superb from start to finish. He is charming, engaging and hilariously funny. Washington carries the film with a degree of confidence and assurance that is surprising in someone who is still at a relatively early stage in his film career. His partner “Flip” Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, is another quiet standout of the film. Whilst his acting may not be as ‘in your face’ as some of the other actors of the film, he brings a certain level of experience with his pretty diverse portfolio of films ranging from Star Wars, to the Coen Brothers’ zany Inside Llewyn Davis, to Spielberg’s epic historical Lincoln.
I would also be remiss to not acknowledge the great performance of Topher Grace as David Duke, head of the KKK. Playing such a controversial character could seem like a pretty thankless task, but Grace approaches it with finesse, portraying him as someone who is almost frighteningly insignificant and ordinary at times, in contrast to the foul rhetoric of his post.
So how has BlacKkKlansman brought a new level of success to Spike Lee? Whilst it does tick most of the usual boxes, one major difference on this occasion is the humour and light touch that skilfully permeate the entire movie. But it would not be a Spike Lee film if it didn’t present the viewer with some hard truths – after all, it is a film about white supremacy in America. The film makes references to The Birth of a Nation and brings the famous (or infamous) 1915 film which represents the KKK as the protectors of America, saving them from the ‘savage’ black population. It also casts a side-swipe at Gone With The Wind’s glorification of the Confederate cause which fought to keep slavery in place. Lee makes these politely overlooked references without subtlety and without apology, showing them for what they are. I think it’s this kind of directness, mixed in with the humour brought by the cast, that really makes this film sing.
BlacKkKlansman is in turns funny, engaging, educational, thought-provoking and frustrating. With a total switch of tone and content at the very end of the film – which is deliberately quite disconcerting – BlacKkKlansman gives Spike Lee a level of award recognition never afforded to any of his previous individual works. Not only that, the film showcases a career best performance from Adam Driver, which has also been duly rewarded with an Oscar nomination. However, for me, the biggest snub of all is the fact that John David Washington has not been nominated for Best Actor in a year of so-so nominations. This is a film you shouldn’t miss, and Washington’s performance is one of the key factors that make it unmissable.