Thursday, 23 August 2018

IN THEATRES: BlacKkKlansman

Torn between his desire to be a cop and to help his community, rookie officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes up with a scheme to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. With the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he successfully poses as a prospective member.

But as Ron's success at penetrating the Klan grows, so does the danger of his cover being blown...  

It is only August, but this might be the best movie of the year. 

Funny, caustic and totally contemporary, BlacKkKlansman is the movie for these times. What elevates it is that its commentary on race is not restricted to its period setting, nor the concerns of today. 

The film is filled with portents of the future - David Duke's belief in getting the KKK into public office; Richard Nixon campaign posters in the back of a KKK initiation - that feel like a convergence of Duke's political ambitions and the Republican Party's race-baiting of the last 40 years.

Harry Belafonte shows up as an elder statesman to talk about civil rights struggles from when he was young in the 1910s. Having Belafonte, an actual elder statesman of the Civil Rights movement, as the spokesperson in this scene, gives the scene a power and sense of history that it would otherwise lack.

That interweaving of meta-narratives carries throughout the film, as the filmmakers weave in elements of American racism, from Birth of a Nation through Trump, that grounds BlacKkKlansman not just in the context of race relations in the seventies, but in the broader context of structural racism as an enduring, evolving institution.

The greatest irony of this movie is that the racism the main character is fighting cannot be contained to the opponents in front of him. He never effects structural change in the police department, and he does not derail the KKK.

The movie's ending is incredibly bittersweet - although he has stopped the villains, his case is closed and Patrice breaks up with him.  

The final scene is so haunting - I watched the movie on Friday night, but it is still burned into my mind's eye. Ron hears a noise outside the apartment. He and Patrice both leave and walk down the hallway - at the end of the hall is a window. In the distance, but perfectly framed through the window, is a burning cross. Ron's ultimate goal remains out of his grasp.

The filmmakers then cut to a montage of the Charlottesville protests, Trump's 'both sides' equivalence and the real David Duke asserting Trump's desire to make America great again aligns with his goals.

In the lead role, John David Washington is really good. Ron is a man caught between different worlds, the police who see him as merely a token, and his community, who treat with suspicion for representing the institution that oppresses them. Washington manages to balance between Ron's pride in being a part of the force, with his growing disenchantment with the bigotry of his colleagues. He's also a great straight man to the BS around him.

As far as the other leads go, they are all good - Adam Driver is good as Ron's partner, and Topher Grace is also great as the completely gormless David Duke - it is always exciting to see an actor with a set image get an opportunity to really break out.

If the movie has standouts, they are supporting players Paul Walter Hauser and Ashlie Atkinson. Hauser plays one of the sleepy-eyed Klansmen, and Atkinson as a female member of the Klan chapter who is constantly trying to prove her worth to her husband and the other members of the cell, despite the misogyny she faces. 

A pointed critique at the chasm between white women and other women of colour, her character feels like the embodiment of this aspect of white supremacy (considering 53% of white women voted for Trump, it feeds into the film's broader relevance to the current moment).

An urgent call to action, BlacKkKlansman is the first movie that really feels keyed in to the existential crisis facing the United States. One of the best movies of the year.

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