Spike Lee back in provocative form
Idealistic black cop goes undercover in the Ku Klux Klan
THE year is 1972. Colorado cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has hatched a madcap scheme to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, ingratiating himself with leader David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone and employing hardboiled detective Flip
Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his double for face-to-face encounters. Only problem being that Stallworth is, in fact, a black man…
Spike Lee’s latest film is a (surprisingly faithful) adaptation ofa larger-than-life memoir; like all his best work, however, it’s keen to function on multiple levels, romping playfully through four decades of black culture (Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, among others, get nods). Where it resigns itself to toy at the margins of a society as blighted by racism as it was in the early-70s, the movie excels. Now a Hollywood veteran, Lee reveals himself to have lost none of his dissident chutzpah (don’t be fooled – this is a story tailored specifically to modern audiences, regardless of its period conceit). As a police procedural, BlacKkKlansman is much less nourishing. All too often, it feels as if Lee’s radical poetry is covering for a narrative which, for all its chaotic twists and turns, can never truly live up to his auteuristic standards.
Whereas prior Lee ‘joints’ have been dominated by offbeat (if not downright iconoclastic) storytelling, BlacKkKlansman feels like an altogether quainter affair, with a plot ripped straight from the pages of a crummy mid-90s detective thriller or a lurid Blaxploitation flick. Curiously, this only enhances the film’s stylistic Lee-ness, as the regnant maestro of Afro-American cinema couples a shaggy-dog yarn with characteristic visual pizzazz and a hilariously off-the-wall screenplay. The characters inhabit a weird world of soul/funk excess and outlandish grit, an Ishmael Reed-esque dreamscape tempered by a real world that has, in many respects, gone well beyond even Lee’s absurdist impulses. Alec Baldwin – better-known in 2018 for his anti-Trump activism than for his movies – opens BlacKkKlansman with a botched racist diatribe about the “mongrelisation” of the US; if only to hammer home the film’s unabashedly partisan angle, we’re later bombarded with footage from the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville.
It’s an enticingly hard-hitting set-up, albeit one that we’ve seen before from this director – Malcolm X’s incendiary intro interspersed the burning of a US flag with George Holliday’s infamous recording of the Rodney King beating. Relative to the latter, BlacKkKlansman’s framing feels more than a little muddled and overcooked, even if it does not lack for its own raw, ominous power. Good thing, then, that all the main players bleed integrity – the Washington-Driver mechanic, though far from orthodox buddy-cop fare, makes for a frequently enthralling watch. Special kudos must go to Laura Harrier, whose versatility as a performer is in full evidence here as she portrays firebrand student leader Patrice Dumas. It’s a standout act, with Harrier possessed equally of militant authenticity and a
bodacious, almost French intellectual edge.
Let us not forget that Lee is a filmmaker who trades in the slummy and the mundane (Do The Right Thing is, of course, the story of just “another summer” in Brooklyn) – his capacity to treat these themes with a cinematic voodoo, a kind of Africana magical realism, is what shall ultimately earn him immortality as an artist. Whereas these two elements gel seamlessly when he’s on form, however, the special touches feel oddly misplaced in BlacKkKlansman, as palpable as the on-screen contrast between Washington’s sub-zero cool and Driver’s fire-trap anxiety.