* * * * (out of five)
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a major event. It signals the return to the mainstream for one of America’s finest, most distinctive and important filmmakers. Lee has never stopped making films, but, for whatever reasons, they’ve been quieter, in release and audience reach, in recent years. Films such as 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, 2015’s Chi-Raq and this year’s Pass Over haven’t even been released in Australian cinemas, tied up in a notion that films centred on the black American experience don’t “play overseas.”
BlacKkKlansman is gonna play. While continuing Lee’s grand theme of addressing race in America, it is undeniably ‘accessible’, thanks in large part to its enormous comedic entertainment value. Lee has always been a comedic filmmaker, and always combined righteous anger with comedy – look at Do The Right Thing – but sometimes his comedy isn’t foregrounded by the people selling his films. This time around, if Lee’s people can’t sell the humour here, they should all lose their jobs. Black KKKlansman is funny.
It’s also deft, surprising, strange and revelatory. The buy-in – a black cop, in 1979, working out of an otherwise all-white precinct in Colorado Springs, manages to ‘infiltrate’ the local Ku Klux Klan chapter when they assume, speaking to him on the telephone, that he’s white – is enough of an extraordinary, and very true, story to carry a film, but the intricacies of the telling, let alone the impactful modern resonances Lee draws, make the film very special. Just one intriguing layer among many: in order to actually meet the Klan members he’s fooling, agent Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) has to enlist one of his white colleagues, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to ‘be’ him for face-to-face meetings. This is bizarre enough – two cops going undercover as one – but what gets really interesting is that Zimmerman thus discovers the Klan hates Jews as much as black people, leading him down his own path of self-realisation, as he takes his own Jewishness seriously for the first time.
In many ways, it’s a straightforward (true) story, very well told, but Lee nevertheless allows his formidable cinematic imagination to bloom in intriguing and satisfying ways. One of the most powerful scenes is early on, when Stallworth goes, as his very first undercover assignment, to a speech at the college campus given by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). Lee not only allows the excellent Hawkins to deliver a massive chunk of the actual speech – possibly six or seven minutes’ worth! – he stylistically manipulates the image of the students’ faces receiving Carmichael’s words, most powerfully when Carmichael talks of ‘black beauty’, and frames the ‘African-ness’ of their features against a deep black background (along the lines of the famous cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody LP). It is a bold sequence whichever way you look at it, and it absolutely works.
The Klansman of the local chapter are depicted as a combination of ignorant and stupid (Paul Walter Hauser, so brilliant in I, Tonya), ignorant and scary (Jasper Pääkkönen, a Finnish movie star doing amazing work as a Coloradan) and unnervingly appealing (Ryan Eggold). Then there’s David Duke, played by Topher Grace. He doesn’t arrive into the picture until the second act, and when he does, everything shifts. Suddenly, Stallworth has the biggest fish on the end of his line, and when Duke announces he’s coming to Colorado Springs for a Klan convention, the already too-good-to-be-true plot lifts into cosmic excellence, propelling Stallworth and Duke towards a head-to-head confrontation. (Don’t forget, this really is a true story, and very, very faithful to real events; as such, the confrontation, when it comes, features a truly truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist you’d never dream up in screenwriting class.) Grace’s performance is excellent, portraying Duke as smooth, charming, well-spoken and glacially calm, which makes him, of course, the most dangerous Klansman in the room even without his position as the Klan’s ‘Grand Wizard’.
Early critical response to the film seems slightly more enthusiastic outside of the US than within, which isn’t surprising. Lee has always been a global player – She’s Gotta Have It was at Cannes – standing on the rooftops urging us to comprehend the deeply troubled relationship his country has with itself. Perhaps, when you’re on the inside, his message can be too tough to bear. BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes this year. Let’s see how it fares at the Oscars, where it deserves, but may not get, nominations across the board, including best director and best film. This is American filmmaking at its best: urgent, angry, innovative, loud and funny.