'BlacKkKlansman' is Spike Lee's most provocative film in decades
Based on the true story of a black cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, 'BlacKkKlansman' is a powerful reminder of how pervasive and tenacious racism is, and not just in SA
It was fateful that I watched BlacKkKlansman on the day Adam Catzavelos became the latest stupid white South African to reinvent himself as an adjective for racist vitriol and a symbol of the failure of the reconciliatory politics of Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation.
Who better than Spike Lee to remind us that our unresolved racial tensions are not unique and that history constantly teaches us that we haven't evolved as much as we might like to think we have? In fact, very little has changed.
It was also fateful that, just as the most consistently political and angry of the US's post-studio-era directors was about to begin shooting his adaptation of the true story of Ron Stallworth - a black cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s - that the horrific events of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, unfolded in August last year.
Lee's response was to adopt a no-holds-barred approach to hammering home the parallels between Stallworth's historical story and its links to the current state of the US - headed by a white-supremacist-sympathising, racist megalomaniac who sits in the highest office of the land, placed there by groups previously thought to present no real threat to the status quo after years of sidelining and marginalisation by even the most conservative of the conservative establishment.
Spike Lee adopts a no-holds-barred approach to hammering home the parallels between Ron Stallworth's historical story and its links to the current state of the US
The result is Lee's most powerful, provocative and compelling film in decades. It's also often darkly hilarious, entertaining and profound.
Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) is the first black officer in the police department of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He's cocky, confident and not afraid to give some much-needed lip to his predominantly white superiors. When he decides to try his luck, "whitening" his voice and dialling the number on a Klan advert in the local paper, he's pleasantly surprised at the interest they show, but briefly flummoxed when he realises he's given them his real name and so can't possibly show up in person.
His cunning solution is to play Ron over the phone while his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) takes on the role of Ron in person.
Together the two men must confront their own relationships to established notions of their racial and cultural identities in order to pull one over the Klan and its new, "respectable", leader David Duke (Topher Grace).
They also must prevent the white supremacist group from carrying out an attack against the local radical black student union, led by Stallworth's love interest, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).
The Klansmen themselves are a sorry, bumbling, idiotic bunch. But Lee and co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott hold back from presenting them as complete caricatures, walking a controlled line between sympathy for their simple-mindedness and contempt for their hateful rhetoric.
WATCH | The trailer for BlacKkKlansman
Lee wants us to see the Klan not as an exception but rather as the logical manifestation of the racial prejudice that exists in white, conservative America to varying degrees, crossing class and educational divides.
It's an opportunity for plenty of moments of cringeworthy comic recognition and sometimes heavy-handed and slightly obvious comparisons between the Nixon and Trump eras, but that's excused by Lee's deft shifting among the many tonal differences within the story.
Stallworth is fighting the system from within, much to the chagrin of Dumas, who fights her battle from without. Meanwhile Zimmerman must deal with his relationship to his secular Jewishness in the face of the anti-Semitism of the Klan, and both men must deal with the threat posed by the seemingly polite façade of white supremacy and its inherent racism offered up by the smiling Duke.
Combining the masterful control of thriller aspects displayed to good effect in his 2006 heist film Inside Man and the jarringly effective visual intrusions of earlier films like Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, Lee takes the material beyond straight biopic towards something more urgent and pertinent to the threats posed by the Trump era to black America and all those who believe in the efficacy of democracy.
Lee also makes his most effective attack yet on the issue of the representation of black Americans in the history of American cinema. It's an interest he's been pursuing since his student days - and so we are reminded of the influence of classic films like DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind on the shaping of racial attitudes of audiences over generations.
By the time we reach the powerful coda to Stallworth's story, we've learnt a lot about ourselves, our behaviour towards others and the way in which, if left unchecked and silently accepted, our prejudices can lead to terribly tragic and unnecessary consequences for society as a whole.