The year is 1972 and the Colorado Springs police department is about to do something very important: it is about to recruit its first African-American police officer. The man in question is Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who by his own account was brought up well by a military father and wishes to make a difference in law enforcement, especially when the police are not too popular among the black community. Maybe he believes he can change all that, though he is under no illusions, and finds racism at work from some of his colleagues which merely steels his resolve to improve things. But the way he goes about it is a case that few could believe actually happened...
Ron Stallworth is a real man, though this adaptation of his book about the Ku Klux Klan in the United States was embellished in the telling, which gave some observers a reason to feel dissatisfied with the work: for instance, the case took place in 1979 and not seven years earlier, and had been changed to fit in more with its director's feelings about the battle against racism in his homeland. That director was Spike Lee, who at this point had not really enjoyed much of a hit for a while, yet with BlacKkKlansman he truly struck a chord and was rewarded with one of his biggest successes, plus a reaction that in many quarters regarded it as his best film - not bad this far into a career.
If you wanted a historical document of Stallworth's endeavours, the book was there for you to read, but if you wanted a film that conjured up the sensation of the tension in America in the seventies, Lee was your man. In a curious way it was a nostalgic work, with digressions for the characters to observe the times they were living in – was Richard Roundtree better than Ron O'Neal because the former had played a heroic detective and the latter a pimp, was one of the cultural questions that arose. But more importantly, it was nostalgic in a paradoxically sobering fashion: you are supposed to look back on the good old days, and that is because your contemporary times are the bad new days.
So when Lee adopted a warm reminiscence of when the African-Americans he knew, was a part of, were standing up to The Man and really making a difference, so much so that it appeared genuine progress was occurring, it was impossible not to feel betrayed when in the era this was released there were so many backward steps being made. Like many in 2018, Lee blamed President Trump, and there were pointed references to his prejudices guiding too many of America's citizens, but while a news clip of the Leader of the Free World was used at the end where he condemned himself out of his own mouth and sided with the racists, we were aware he would be nothing if he did not have supporters, and the buffoons we watched Stallworth infiltrating were rightly to be wary of when if their numbers grew, Trump was the result.
Not that the bigots were going to see BlacKkKlansman, and there was always the danger of preaching to the choir, then perhaps more worryingly the technique Lee and his co-screenwriters implemented to have the villains speak in the most horrendous terms might have given a voice to those who thoroughly agreed with the racists and could take that language as an inspiration. It didn't matter that the bad guys were thoroughly humiliated at the end, we had already heard their poison and with those words out there it may have been difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. On the other hand, the film was deliberately setting out to shock, and if you had a decent bone in your body you would be repulsed by the characters who set out to use violence and hate speech to embolden themselves. But that said, there was always the worry someone, somewhere was getting off on hearing dialogue no other film in its right mind would include if they wanted to keep anything like a mainstream audience.
Birth of a Nation was invoked, a supposedly groundbreaking silent movie that re-established the Klan, to make clear it was not so long ago that racist attitudes not only were part and parcel of life in America, but had real consequences when so many deaths resulted, and there was enough awareness here of the power of the media that you were confident these filmmakers knew what they were doing: this was meant to be troubling, and it was. More subtly, once Ray has inveigled his way into the local KKK chapter over the phone, with Jewish colleague (Adam Driver – a composite character, as Ray's student activist girlfriend Laura Harrier is) his stand-in for personal appearances, Lee constantly bettered the progressiveness of the black power movement (e.g. women were integral to its leadership) over the backward hate-crime perpetrators (women are used and abused). With its focus on crackling dialogue emphasising talk was far from cheap when it had effects beyond a private conversation polite society would prefer not to hear, call it an alarm call to the complacent: the tide of progress can go out as well as in. Music by Terence Blanchard, along with well-chosen oldies.
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.