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Spike Lee, I doubt anyone would argue, has paved the way for the likes of John Singleton, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Jordan Peele and really all black filmmakers of the last 30 years who have given faces and voices to the stories of black America. 1989’s Do the Right Thing is still a landmark film and played the Cannes Film Festival in competition. He lost to Steven Soderbergh’s debut film sex, lies, and videotape, but Lee returned to the Croisette in competition tonight for the first time in 27 years with BlacKkKlansman, a vital piece of Americana, an incendiary work and his best film in over a decade.
Based on the book by Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman tells the incredible true story of Stallworth who, as the first black police officer in 1979 Colorado Springs, Colorado, infiltrating the local wing of the Ku Klux Klan, duping even Grand Wizard David Duke himself. The film opens with its tongue very firmly in cheek; first with a scene from Gone with the Wind of Scarlett looking through the dead and wounded and the camera landing on the Confederate flag and then into a wild sequence featuring Alec Baldwin rehearsing and recording a racist propaganda video and landing on a title sequence saying “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real fo’ real sh*t.” that wouldn’t feel out of place opening a Tarantino movie. Lee is toying with us a bit here; we know that this is a story that will make us uncomfortable in its frank depiction of deeply racist rhetoric and dialogue but he’s going to ease us into it. Is Spike getting soft? Hardly.
Stallworth, who is played by John David Washington (yes, Denzel’s son – big shoes to fill there) applies for, and gets, a job with the Colorado Spring police department under the command of Chief Bridges (played with grizzled Clint Eastwoodiness by Robert John Burke). He tells Stallworth he has his back but that it’s all on him to succeed and that he can only do so much. He sticks him in the evidence locker where he’s taunted by an especially nasty and racist cop named Landry (Frederick Weller). Getting fed up he’s reassigned for an undercover job checking out a club featuring Kwame Ture. He’s there to see if rising black power anger is out to seek anti-cop justice through violence. There he meets Patrice (a fantastic Laura Harrier) the president of the Black Student Union. What Ture (who is played by Corey Walkins, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Denzel Washington, ironically enough) talks about is more empowerment with chants like “we are black, we are beautiful” and, in one of many moments that are as relevant today as ever “white racist cops are shooting us in the back!”
Not soon after Stallworth is reading the newspaper and happens on an ad for the Ku Klux Klan, who are looking for members. On a whim, he calls the number. Employing a ‘white’ voice of almost cartoony meticulous articulation he chats up Walter (Ryan Eggold), crossing the first steps to joining the KKK, or as they call it, The Organization. Here Stallworth lets rip a litany of anti-black, Jewish, Chinese and Mexican epithets that all but secure him in Walter’s eyes (or ears, as it were). “You are just the kind of guy we’re looking for,” he says. A scheme to infiltrate is born.
Bridges isn’t quite on board with this, worried that the KKK will easily be able to suss out his race based on his voice. Stallworth assures him he can speak both “the King’s English and jive.” But, there’s still the issue of having to meet Walter in person. Enter Flip Zimmerman (a never better Adam Driver). He practices his Stallworth voice until he’s ready to put the plan into action and the two create a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac with Stallworth providing the voice relationship and Zimmerman satisfying the in-person white quotient.
Zimmerman blends well, earning Walter’s respect as well as the slovenly, drunken Ivanhoe (played by I, Tonya‘s Paul Walter Hauser). But Felix is suspect right off the bat. Played with earned paranoia by Jasper Paakkonen, Felix thinks Flip is a cop and a Jew and demands he take a lie detector test. He thinks the Holocaust was fake, giving Zimmerman a chance to turn it around saying it was “one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened.”
Stallworth quickly rises in ranks that includes many phone conversations with none other David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the KKK. “You are the white American hero,” Stallworth compliments. “Is there any other kind?” Duke retorts. “I just want America to achieve its…greatness again.” These back and forths are played for high comedy, and the film is punctuated with a lot of broad humor aimed directly at our modern day politics as well as very pointed jabs resulting in (appropriately) uncomfortable laughter. I say uncomfortable because a Cannes audience primarily a white audience. A lot of reviews will be coming from white authors (myself included) so I would encourage my readers to seek out the voices and impressions of black writers, certainly when the film is released. I’m reminded of last year when Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit came out, largely to raves and from white critics. Once black critics (who are rarely first out of the gate for their outlet, much less the ones attending festival first looks) saw it, the response was quite the opposite of most initial reviews (the same happened with Three Billboards).
Frequent composer collaborator Terence Blanchard provides an amazing score for the film that dances between the film’s location and tone with ease; giving us pieces that are reminiscent of the Americana of Copland, to 70s soul and even glam rock. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new Spike Lee and really plays with scope and depth whether it’s opening up the frame for a Colorado landscape or a tightly shot club sequence. It makes for Lee’s best-looking film since Summer of Sam.
In the film’s most effective sequence, Lee shuttles us back and forth between the baptizing of new KKK members (including Zimmerman) as they watch and cheer a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation with Patrice’s group hosting a speaker played by the legendary Harry Belafonte (one of Hollywood’s most visible black rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s) as he recalls the details of one The Waco Incident of 1916 when a 17-year old retarded black teenager named Jesse Washington was found guilty of raping and murdering a white woman (“It took them just four minutes,” he says). Washington was tortured, dragged through the streets and burned to death in front of a cheering crowd.
BlacKkKlansman closes with the events of Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 when a protest against a neo-Nazi/White Nationalist march turned to murder when a 20-year old Nazi sympathizer ran his car through the crowd, injuring 19 people and killing Heather D. Heyer. It is a sobering reminder that be it 1916, 1979 or 2018, we still have so much further to go.
BlacKkKlansman was produced by Jordan Peele’s MonkeyPaw Productions and Jason Blum’s Blumhouse. Focus Features will release the film on the one-year anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, on August 10.