You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true. For his latest “joint”, Spike Lee is in raging and righteous form as he relays the extraordinary story of Ron Stallworth, the black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1972.
Told with gritty swagger and displaying a penchant for both mischief and provocation, this ’70s-set film’s collage-like assembly ensures it’s so much more than a biopic. Swipes at racially problematic cultural landmarks (Gone with the Wind, The Birth of a Nation) are fused with bald vitriol – epitomised by Alec Baldwin’s pro-segregation figure Dr Kennebrew Beauregard, whose gaffe-heavy lecture ends unironically with “May God bless us all”.
“I always wanted to be a cop and I’m still for the liberation of my people,” Ron (John David Washington, son of Denzel) tells his student activist girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) as they debate whether it’s possible to change such a stubborn system from within. The film itself isn’t sure about that, yet Ron makes a valiant protagonist: determined and dignified but resolutely no-nonsense.
The first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, his story begins as he’s vetted for any sensitivity to jibes (by Isiah Whitlock Jr., no less, making reference to his character from The Wire), the implication being that the force doesn’t want anyone interfering with its racist business as usual. Ron’s ambition takes him from the records room to undercover work, and when he spontaneously responds to an advert seeking new members of his local branch of the KKK, he’s called right back, quickly ingratiating himself to the man on the other end of the line, chapter head Walter (Ryan Eggold).
Since he can’t meet Walter in person, for obvious reasons, Ron sends along his colleague Flip (Adam Driver). He’s similarly unsuitable, being Jewish, although has been passing as a WASP – something he’s forced to confront as the film wears on. Flip is immediately singled out for suspicion by wild-eyed affiliate Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who’s involved in a violent plot, while Ron continues his telephone-based charm offensive by befriending the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
There’s showmanship in the direction but understatement in the central performances. Former American footballer Washington rises to the challenge of his first major film role (he’s best known for the HBO comedy series Ballers); by his side, the ever-reliable Driver subtly suggests Flip’s own conflict.
Things get sufficiently serious – for all Ron’s relatively small-scale heroics, the bigger, bleaker picture is never in doubt – but BlacKkKlansman wields a wonderful sense of the absurd that’s entirely fitting given the surrealness of the story, and Lee has fun ridiculing the low intellect and dumb logic of KKK members, simultaneously emphasising the real danger of such stupidity.
Together with his co-screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, Lee joins the dots between then and now in a way that’s ultimately chilling, arguing that the rebranding of the KKK as a non-violent organisation ends with their ideas infecting the mainstream and eventually the White House.
Duke talks of “America First” and paraphrases Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. And Felix’s outwardly wholesome, inwardly hateful wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) could easily be one of the “very fine people” Trump suggested were among the white supremacists at 2017’s explosive Charlottesville rally.
The vibe is authentic, the period detail tasty, yet BlacKkKlansman burns with contemporary anger and concludes on an impossibly affecting, painfully relevant note. It’s as playful as it is political, and if the scattershot approach doesn’t always cohere, Lee struts his film-making stuff with ambition and gusto, while the connections he makes are hard to deny.
BlacKkKlansman opens in cinemas on Friday 24 August.