You get a flavour of exactly how serious and preachy Spike Lee is going to be in BlacKkKlansman from the opening scene, which sees Alec Baldwin’s white supremacist announcer repeatedly flubbing his lines: not at all. BlacKkKlansman plays out with a weirdly upbeat tone, in the vein of a kind of buddy comedy, which uses boundary-pushing humour to puncture racist ideologies from the 70s which (Spike Lee could not be clearer) are still very much alive today in Trump’s America. The resulting film is a messy and naive procedural that muddies its own political discourse, but which will surely prove a popular success.
Lee cuts right to it in setting up his story, introducing Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, in a far too superficial performance) in a series of short scenes which see this black man apply to join the police force of Colorado Springs and be accepted into a junior position. We watch him undergo the casual and not-so-casual racism of colleagues, who drop slurs at him and treat him like a lackey. Stallworth makes the acquaintance of Jimmy (Michael Buscemi, strictly here to be a Greek chorus) and Flip (Adam Driver, solid but untested), two further cops who second him on an initial mission to infiltrate a Black rights gathering and will later assist him in his mission to join and take down his local chapter of the KKK.
There is so much politics going on at this point, served up in a variety of jarring tones, that it can be hard to get a foothold in the movie. Lee’s dialogue wears a little thin when he pushes the overt racism to breaking point, giving his villains a kind of cardboard, Three Billboards flavour. Meanwhile, Ron’s empowered girlfriend, Patrice, who is heavily involved in civil rights, offers only a slight counterpoint to the heavily compromised personal politics of Ron, a black man who loves and respects the police. Throughout, the N-word is used in abundance by everyone, along with antisemitic slurs and other deeply offensive language, which Lee seeks to infuse with a kind of shocking humour by having them said by the victims. See: Ron is attempting to infiltrate the KKK, so is obligated to recite racial hatred against black people. Flip, who stands in for Ron at gatherings, is a Jewish man who goes overboard in praising the Holocaust in order to gain the trust of the Klan. These scenes are perhaps not as ironic or hilarious as Lee thinks, and after the third or fourth instance of racist one-upping, the racism-as-farce stuff gets tiresome.
Alongside this jarring tonal mishmash, Lee seems to have forgotten to throw any filmmaking smarts at the movie, which results in scenes that peter out, poorly edited musical choices, ugly split-screen, and a truly bizarre shot selection: Lee several times uses a procedure where two slightly different shots of the same event are shown in quick succession, which gives the movie a fairly hoary feel. The lighting is pure TV, which, coupled with Washington’s two-note performance, lends the whole affair a bit of a Netflix-on-a-budget vibe. Meanwhile, huge plot holes are simply jumped over, and the central attack by the KKK that Ron attempts to avert simply peters out at the end. Finally, the documentary footage of Charlottesville that Lee throws in at the end of his movie is poorly connected to the film’s events, and ends on a strange tribute to Heather Heyer minimises the point he should be making about systemic racism in America.
This isn’t to say that everything here is dreadful: an early scene set at a lecture by Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture is rousing and followed up very swiftly by a joyous scene of dancing in a club for black people. Some of Spike Lee’s lines land with a thump, such as Ron’s wonderful delivery of “You are so white”, uttered over the phone to David Duke, and there are some decent performances. It’s only a pity that Lee’s film is so astonishingly unfocused in its production and try-hard in its political intent.