Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Spike Lee's controversial new movie which brings cinema up to date with the debate over race relations in America
Blackkklansman – ★★★★☆
When Kendrick Lamar’s Alright became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, it signalled modern art’s integration with the political struggles of the moment. The resilient ‘we gon’ be alright’ refrain of marchers made it so localised pockets of protest became universal, entering into a conversation with music that could unite people across countries.
Music is immediate, and artists are able to record then release a track in the space of a weekend. The same cannot be said for cinema. 2016’s I, Daniel Blake came six years after the coalition government, long after the devastation caused by the Department of Work and Pensions began. While the lack of immediacy was no detriment to the film’s impact, audiences had to wait for cinema to catch up with what was happening in their lives.
Blackkklansman is cinema catching up again, with confidence in its own vision, leaving it open to criticism from its political mates. As with most branches of progressive politics, those on the same side can be the most ardent opponents of each other. Director Boots Riley has criticised Spike Lee over Blackkklansman in a lengthy Twitter response, mostly for its historical inaccuracies and its portrayal of the police.
In tackling something as timely, as complex, as race relations, it was always going to take on more than it was capable of fully giving the required time to.
The film claims to be based on a true story (or, ‘based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit’) taken from the memoir of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated the KKK. In the film, Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) makes contact with a local chapter, setting up a meeting he is obviously unable to attend. Detective Flip Zimmerman, a white Jewish man, is sent along to act as Ron Stallworth in his place, having initially given his real name on the phone.
Prior to this, Stallworth goes undercover to infiltrate a civil rights movement meeting at a student union, which includes a talk by Kwame Ture. There, he is caught up by what he sees, moved by the celebration of ‘black power’ as a means of liberation, while also meeting Patrice, the black student union’s president who preaches ‘all power to all the people.’
Riley’s criticism views this act through a more suspicious lens, one which the character of Patrice echoes. Stallworth is black, but he is also a cop. This is a film about a daring hero, but to what extent was the real Stallworth involved in the systemic oppression which necessitated these secretive and empowering speeches? ACAB might take precedence over Stallworth’s ethnicity, depending on who you ask.
It makes for a confusing watch upon reflection, but taken as it is, Blackkklansman is about rebellion and liberation, with a side of controversial nuance. While its lasting impact is one of shock and a desire for change – its closing sequence is unrestrained in its real-life horror, placing the film firmly in the present – the journey to that conclusion is often fun.
The sheer notion of a black cop infiltrating a white supremacist organisation is absurd, and the film knows it. David Duke, here played by Topher Grace, is equal parts charming and ridiculous, complimenting Stallworth over the phone on his proper articulation, characteristic of a pure white American. It invites laughs, especially when the rest of the precinct gather to listen to these exchanges.
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But in tackling something as timely, as complex, as race relations, it was always going to take on more than it was capable of fully giving the required time to. Adam Driver’s Zimmerman quietly considers his Jewishness in the face of the Holocaust deniers he now has to associate with, something he had never thought much of before as a white-passing American. He is mostly left to consider this on his own, which Jewish critics have responded to, such as Ella Kemp here writing for the Quietus.
When Stallworth asks Ture what he can do for the cause, he is told to arm himself. Later, Zimmerman-as-Stallworth hears mumblings of a bomb-plot among the KKK. Stallworth dismisses the former as hyperbole, but believes urgency is needed for the latter. History would imply the opposite reaction is more common in the police force, but the film takes two opposing sides and equips them with similar rhetoric, presumably trusting the audience to view one side as resisting and the other as oppressing.
And what of those audiences? It is a push to suggest anyone will have their mind changed by Blackkklansman, unlikely as it is white supremacists will flock to see it. It plays instead to the white liberals so cleverly mocked and critiqued by Get Out, most of whom will be rightly shocked but perhaps too far removed from what they see happening. Indeed – it is easy to forget just how white Glasgow is, and at my packed screening, I spotted one black woman, whose physical reaction of despair towards the closing moments was perhaps more powerful than anything in the film.
Taken as it is, Blackkklansman is one of the year’s better releases, acting as a provocative and entertaining conversation starter, bringing cinema up to date with the state of the world. Personal relationships with it will change upon reflection and research. If it encourages further reading, then in this critic’s opinion, it has done its job. It just might not be as fo’ real as the opening titles claim.
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