Blackkklansman is the most enjoyable film Spike Lee has made in years if not decades. It would have been even better if he had made a thought provoking film about race for the ages had he not decided to play to the rabid anti Trump gallery. By adding unnecessary footage of the sitting president and the Charlottesville protests of 2017 at the end Lee diminished the main story which is strong and absorbing enough on its own.
The addition of recent footage plus some other obvious jibes at the current US president excited a section of the public at Cannes where I saw the film in May after its world premiere. This group hollered and laughed too uproariously at the parts clearly aimed at them ….then looked around to check that everyone had seen their reaction and clocked their politics. This too diminished the film which didn’t need their self congratulatory validation. The film stands well enough on its own feet.
It bursts onto the screen with a thumping, uncomfortable cameo from Alec Baldwin as a white-power extremist banging out a flood of racist language and images designed to make viewers squirm. But Baldwin is from another era as is America’s civil war which is also referenced. These are just starters leading to the main course.
That course stars John David Washington (son of Denzil) in a very solid lead performance. He plays Ron Stallworth who joins the Colarado Springs police force as its first black officer complete with a huge 70s affro. After a soul sapping period in the records department he is given an assignment to go undercover to suss out the intentions of black activists at a local college. A potential romance blossoms which turns sour when he is revealed to be ‘the enemy’, namely a cop. From this experience of playing a role Stallworth embarks on an audacious plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the white hood wearing Ku Klux Klan. He speaks on the telephone ‘in a white voice’ to the head honchos, including eventually the grand wizard himself, David Duke, played impressively by Topher Grace, while his white colleague played by Adam Driver attends the face to face meetings pretending to be him.
Remarkably, the plan works. Even more remarkably, this story is based on true events.
All the performances are excellent and convincing but it is Driver who gives the film its gravitas and heart. He is appealing in this film in a way that he has not managed to be, for me, at least, in anything else he’s done including or maybe especially his stint as Kylo Ren. He plays the Jewish guy who has never really embraced his background and now forced to deny it at his Klansman meetings has to battle his conflicting feelings.
While the language is often crude and strong and the racial/political message laid on with a trowel, Lee at times displays a deftness of touch in his handling of potentially incendiary issues which is very welcome from him. There are moments of broad comedy which is actually funny and the Klansmen (and one or two women) are not mere pantomime villains.
So it’s a shame that the promotion for the film’s release in the US and Lee’s interviews at Cannes focused on Trump. There are more interesting issues raised in the film and the story which deserve reasoned discussion in an increasingly violently polarised world. The actors too are falling over themselves to tell us how wonderfully sound and beyond criticism their personal politics are instead of reflecting on the the emotional and social complexities of the characters they play.
Blackkklansman could have been a powerfully influential film. Instead it’s an entertaining one and that works well too.