Can you smell that? That’s right, it’s the first hint of autumn, which means that it’s the first hint of awards season! I like to think that I made it out of the summer blockbuster quagmire fairly unscathed, but as the nights draw in and the studios start to get more thoughtful with their releases, this is when my love for good cinema really comes to the forefront. Having already snapped up the second most prestigious prize at thus year’s Cannes Film Festival, I was eager to see BlacKkKlansman, the film being labeled by all as legendary director Spike Lee’s true return to form.
Based on a 2014 memoir, BlacKkKlansman tells the almost unbelievable story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs who sets up an undercover operation to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Using his own voice over the telephone and sending white, Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose in his place in person, the narrative proceeds as a razor sharp, incisive, at times uncomfortable and challenging dark comedy.
The film, in my opinion, is close to being a masterpiece. It runs along the line of dark humour and dramatic tension that I absolutely love, and it is a depressing but poignant fact that the themes and subject matter are just as important and prevalent today as they were forty years ago. The film is made with such experts hands at every level that the weight of the topic doesn’t drag you down until the filmmakers decide that it is time for you to be dragged. The premise in itself is the perfect backdrop for dark comedy, and there are more laugh out loud moments than you can count. The tone of the film is quintessential Spike Lee, but for those unfamiliar with his work, think a heavy mix of Coen brothers quirk, Tarantino-esque sharp dialogue and a reverence for the old techniques of blaxploitation that give the film an authentic period feel that makes what is to follow even more of a jarring shock.
The true gut punch of the film is saved for its final, post narrative universe moments, in which Lee ends his picture with a montage of sickening footage reels from the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. For ninety minutes the audience are allowed use the quirky period setting of 1970s Colorado as a screen against the reality of the racism at the heart of America, but that safety and distance is completely torn away when the very same fictional images we have been tutting over and darkly laughing at in equal parts are shown replicated by real people, not forty years ago, but twelve months ago. I felt like someone had come in to the screen and sat directly on me chest. It is probably one of the most powerful moments I have every experienced in a movie theatre. You will come out of BlacKkKlansman with a reinvigorated love for Spike Lee and a reinvigorated hate for Donald fucking Trump, a US President who watched an innocent woman get run down by a Neo-Nazi in a car, and had the audacity to say that there was ‘bad on both sides’. No.
John David Washington puts in a brilliant performance as Ron Stallworth, somehow managing to make the character feel modern and a self aware kind of audience surrogate whilst at the same time slotting perfectly in to the period setting. His charisma is so captivating and alluring that it adds an even more humorous dimension to the body swapping nature of the plot. It might be too early in the year to make any solid assumptions, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his name alongside the other nominations for Best Actor for several different awards bodies.
As Flip Zimmerman and the ‘white version’ of Ron, Adam Driver is equally as entertaining. Together, the pair share a great on screen chemistry, using their characters backgrounds, one African American, one Jewish to examine lots of different aspects and attitudes that are woven in to the disgusting fabric of the KKK. Further supporting performances are all delivered brilliant by the likes of Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson and Corey Hawkins. The level of talent on display on both sides of the morally reprehensible character spectrum is a joy to watch.
Overall, BlacKkKlansman is a film that I think everybody needs to see. If you don’t come out of the cinema with a burning rage and desire to both educate yourself and work towards lasting change, then there is something wrong with you. It is testament to Spike Lee and all else involved that a film that feels this timely and important can also be one of the most darkly comic and enjoyable experience I have had in the cinema this year. A film that could potentially garner both Best Actor and Best Picture nominations at next year’s Academy Awards. Not one to be missed, and not one to be forgotten.