Klan Destiny: Lee Returns with Strongest Joint in Years
Although not as finely wrought as his subversive (and underrated) 2015 Chi-raq, Spike Lee returns with what will be seen as his most notable film in well over a decade with BlackKklansman, taken from actual events in 1970s Colorado Springs, Colorado wherein the city’s first Black police officer successfully infiltrated the local Ku Klux Clan’s residing chapter.
While many will deem Lee’s latest an incendiary political message movie in response to Trump’s presidency (and the onslaught of civil liberties and rise in hate speak against the nation’s non-white, non-heteronormative populations), it is, in fact, merely an obvious one. Perhaps the most calibrated of any of Lee’s titles for a white audience (at least since 2002’s The 25th Hour), his glaring message in this comical, cynically rendered portrait of blatant, hysterical racism in 1970s era America is a plea for unity against the man. While courting liberalism rather than needling or calling it out how it can be part of the problem, Lee manages something perhaps unintentionally divisive in this somewhat straightforward affair, as evidenced by a finale consisting of news items from 2017 which closes Lee’s film like nails sledgehammered into a coffin. But whatever detractions against this mainstream affair (especially considering this comes from the man who brought us such varied items as the 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing and the button-pushing, actually incendiary Bamboozled, 2000), including the possibility it may eventually be preaching to the choir, Lee has crafted a supremely entertaining, unavoidably troubling portrait of America’s continual inability to examine how its racist history has mutated into the systemic pandemic it is today.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who on a seeming whim becomes the first Black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs manages to formulate his own undercover operation as a rookie by wheedling his way into the good graces of the local Ku Klux Klan president, Walter (Ryan Eggold). But the infiltration requires a white cop to physically stand in for Stallworth, an assignment filled by Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a non-practicing Jewish man who shares similar sentiments to Ron. Eventually, things spin out of control, as the KKK chapter is undergoing a transitional phase which finds them trying to appoint white Ron as the new local president, thanks to the backing of National Director David Duke (Topher Grace).
Lee begins in a tone similar to something like 2004’s She Hate Me, with newcomer John David Washington the blank slate Anthony Mackie was for audiences back then. Quickly, this veers into something less broadly comedic, albeit retaining similar vibes to the Boots Riley satire Sorry to Bother You (2018) in its rendering of blackness whittled down to the comfort levels required by White dominated spaces.
Usual Lee patterns transpire in the romantic subplot involving Washington and Patrice, the Black Student Union leader played by Laura Harrier. Discussions involving Black representation in film, from Richard Roundtree to Pam Grier, and how such archetypes furthered problematic stereotypes, makes one wonder how Lee’s filmography will similarly be parsed decades from now. But perhaps the best bit is watching a group of new KKK initiates howling at a screening of The Birth of a Nation, which is purposefully juxtaposed with a rousing cameo from Harry Belafonte relating the story of a lynching he witnessed in 1917.
Audacious, even as it deliberates the obvious parallels between then and now, and how little progress has actually been made, BlackKklansman doubles down as meaningful entertainment. Whether or not it will change minds, it has the platform to reach as far and wide as Lee’s Inside Man (2006). For those desiring of another Do the Right Thing, this film isn’t that, nor is it trying to be. As far as politically conscious American cinema goes in 2018, this manages to be a welcome palette cleanser from the hopelessness inspired by the news media, even if it lacks a certain bite we should rightfully expect from Lee.
Reviewed on May 15th at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 128 Minutes