In Klansman Spike Lee combines the razor sharp dissection of racial politics of Do The Right Thing with the crowdpleasing thriller narrative of Inside Man, to produce his finest work for a long time, and possibly the film of the year. It relates the incredible but true story of black detective Ron Stallworth (played with effortless charm by John David Washington), who working with colleagues uncovers the radical plans of the KKK. This compelling narrative backbone provides Lee with ample jumping off points to address a range of issues. He combines multiple themes with the same deft competence that Infinity War successfully mixed multiple plot lines. We get the significance of identity politics, the role of Birth of a Nation in shaping racist attitudes, and the very direct links through to Trump’s America. Stallworth’s (white) boss tells him at one stage that Duke is playing the long game, he will wrap up racism under the guise of immigration, employment, housing. “Someone like Duke will never be President” Stallworth says, and we all chuckle wryly and sadly.
Identity sits at the heart of the movie – powerfully articulated by black rights speaker Kwame Ture when he talks of the split identity of African Americans. The split is made real for Stallworth who is dating student activist Patrice Dumas. But it also echoes through the other characters: Stallworth’s partner Flip (portrayed with a deft, cool touch by Adam Driver) who questions his non-Jewish Jewishness, and the white supremacists who cling so desperately to mythological notions of race.
In Klansman, Lee brings all the techniques and skills he has honed over the years to play. His comic touch is perfect for simultaneously exposing how absurd and ridiculous the Klan are, whilst also leaving no doubt about how evil and despicable their beliefs are. This is captured perfectly in a scene between a Klan member and his supportive wife in bed, having sweet pillow talk about finally getting to “kill the n*****s”, that makes you both want to laugh and scream. What is particularly admirable is the focus Lee maintains on a tense, detective plot while never losing his grip on all these larger issues. As a viewer you switch between these two modes without any detriment to either.
The final montage of scenes from Charlottesville are harrowing, and ensure the viewer leaves the cinema with any comic elements shaken loose and in no doubt about the white supremacist roots of the current White House. I wanted to stand and applaud at the finale. It is a fine, fine piece of cinema.