Blackkklansman, 30th August 2018
Spike Lee is 61 years old. This photo is a few years old but there is still a twinkle in his eye if you ask me. That twinkle, the eye for mischief, has been in his films from the start. Now I can’t pretend that I have followed his career, after the initial breakthrough in the mid 1980s with She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, but every time I have seen one of his films I have been thoroughly entertained, educated and provoked and made a mental note to see more of his work and revisit the early films. I have failed in this.
However I thoroughly enjoyed Chi-Raq a couple of years ago, with its more than a passing nod to Lysistrata, though the remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was disappointing, and can add to the acclaim for Blackkklansmen. It is, to its core, a Spike Lee film, the examination of race in the US and the African American experience, the humour, the exaggerated characters, the mixing of fact and fiction, the incorporation of documentary footage, the title sequences, the slick technique, the music, the dolly shots, all in the service of a captivating and extraordinary true-ish story of a black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs who, with the help of a white colleague, penetrates the Ku Klax Klan as they plan a terrorist atrocity.
Mr Lee is a proselytising political film-maker who can, at his best, appear not to be. (I am not talking here about his specifically documentary films such as 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke). Political films can, perforce, be a dour watch. Especially if they are about the “business’ of politics, political history, made by directors with an avowedly political agenda or focus on big, global issues, the stuff of international relations. Getting bums on seats with this sort of stuff is not easy. Me Lee here though has managed to incorporate the elements of a thriller, the one sure-fire way to secure an audience for the political, with elements of personal and identity politics in the relationships between the key male characters and the main protagonist, Ron Stallworth, and impassioned student activist girlfriend, Patrice. Best of all the satirical mocking of the KKK and its leader David Duke repeatedly hits the target without diminishing the ugliness of their hate. Remember the criminal fascist Duke is still peddling his sh*te and people are still being emboldened by it.
The period setting is superbly realised. The cast is outstanding. John David Washington’s bone-dry Ron is confident enough to face down face down racist colleagues after joining the force and to persuade boss Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to back his plan to infiltrate the KKK. The ever laconic Adam Driver is the perfect foil as Flip Zimmerman, who is sent in undercover to join the KKK cell. We see the political horizons of both expand; Ron after he is sent to monitor a Black rally at the local university, (where Corey Hawkins plays Kwame Ture in a stunning scene), where he meets Laura Harrier’s Patrice, and Flip, as the Jewish heritage he had abandoned is unmasked by the KKK and, specifically, the comically evil Walter (Ryan Eggold). Topher Grace is the spitting image of the young David Duke and brilliantly captures the rhetorical articulacy allied to an idiotic world view. There are some fine cameos on show from Paul Walter Hauser, following on from his scene stealing performance in I Tonya, from Finnish actor Jaasper Paakkonen as Felix Kendrickson, the leader of the local Klan cell, and from Ashlie Atkinson as his wife Connie, who spews out shocking unthinking vitriol but still ends up as an unwitting victim.
Scene after scene hits home and somehow Spike Lee knits effortlessly knits this all together. Harry Belafonte is immensely moving as Jerome Turner in a scene where he describes the violence meted out to African-Americans in past generations. The Klan meting which ends in a screening of the outrageous DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation is properly shocking as is Alec Baldwin playing white supremacist Dr Kennebrew Beauregard. The ending is proper edge of the seat stuff. As if that wasn’t enough Lee leaves us with actual news footage from the Charlottesville rally in 2017. No equivocation here in contrast to some in the US. You will leave the cinema with no doubt what is right and what is wrong.
Blackkklansmen won a price at the Cannes Film Festival. I regret I am not up on these sort of things and have no idea what it was up against, but I am sure the jury here got it right. Mr Lee has packed so much into this film, plot, character, message, tone, spectacle, and the just over 2 hours flies by. Unmissable.