This latest joint from director Spike Lee arrives in Australian cinemas on the back of success at European festivals, winning the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and the Audience Award at Locarno, and having been subjected to an inordinate amount of scrutiny, commentary and analysis, particularly in light of recent events in America. Based on true events and adapted from the book Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman stars John David Washington as Stallworth, an African-American police officer whose communications, initially with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan and later with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, enable fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the organisation.
Lee opens with a pre-credits sequence in which a pro-segregationist named Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (played by Alec Baldwin) – standing in front of images from D.W Griffith’s racist black and white polemic Birth of a Nation – launches into a vitriolic diatribe about the evils of integration and the threats posed by Jewish and African-American people to the safety and sanctity of the American way of life. From here, the action moves to 1970’s Colorado Springs where Stallworth is duly recruited as the first African-American officer in the local police force, much to the chagrin of the racist, redneck elements within the ranks. It isn’t long before Stallworth finds himself called upon to infiltrate an event convened by a local group of black activists, namely a speech by Kwane Ture (Corey Hawkins), a former Black Panther leader and one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement. No doubt frustrated by the focus on black activism whilst other groups such as the KKK were operating with impunity, Stallworth takes it upon himself to reach out to local chapter leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold).
It is no surprise that Lee casts the KKK membership as being particularly stupid, which seems perfectly reasonable given their ignorant intolerance and the ease with which Stallwell, whose role is confined to the voice talking to Klan members on the phone, is able to gain the confidence of Breachway and Duke (Topher Grace), despite the latter’s ludicrous boasts that he can tell when he is talking to an African-American because of the way they pronounce particular words. Grace is really good in harnessing both the arrogance and idiocy of Duke who, to nobody’s surprise, has been vocal in support of Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric. Needless to say, Stallworth and his colleagues drew considerable pleasure from the fact that a black man had so easily outsmarted a group so adamant in their delusion of white supremacy. It is somewhat disconcerting to find yourself laughing at a bunch of people whose views are so abhorrent and potentially harmful, yet it is impossible not to find the inept lunacy of the KKK amusing. There is always an undercurrent of tension though with Zimmerman having to hide his Jewish ancestry to successfully embed himself within the organisation, while the final moments serve to remind us of the potential for harm that these people possess despite how misguided they may be.
To his great credit, Lee emphasises that anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny are all integral to the ideology of white supremacy in what is not only his best work of recent times, but also looks likely to be one of his most (financially) successful productions ever (certainly his biggest since Inside Man in 2006) and seems certain to figure prominently during award season, in large part due to a stand-out performance from Washington (the son of Denzel) that is every bit as audacious as his character’s plan. With strong turns also from Grace, Driver and several supporting players, including Ashlie Atkinson and Laura Harrier as women on either side of the racial divide, Lee has delivered a film that is highly entertaining and remarkably relevant given the state of play in the United States at the moment.