Review – Spike Lee delivers a powerful, rambling polemic on race in ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Poster for 2018 crime drama BlacKkKlansman

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 24th August 2018
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser
Synopsis: A black cop infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan and enlists a white colleague to pose as him in order to meet the Klan members in person.

 

 

Cinematic polemics about race relations in America couldn’t be arriving at a better time than today. If you doubt that, go and ask Jordan Peele how well Get Out did, thanks to its laser-focused attack on the insidious racism of liberal American surburbia. The next filmmaker out of the block is Spike Lee with BlacKkKlansman, in which he uses the backdrop of a true story from the 1970s to comment on today’s racial politics with incendiary effect. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a ramble.

In the place of Get Out‘s precision storytelling, BlacKkKlansman tells the story of black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington). He’s referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Force” when he is hired as their first black detective. After tiring of the filing room, he meets black student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) while monitoring an event for potential Black Panther agitators. Soon after, he takes the initiative of phoning a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and enlists Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be his in-person analogue.

Lee blasts through this setup with reasonable energy and speed, helped by a witty and sharp script, as well as the innate charisma of Washington, who has clearly inherited plenty of his father‘s movie star presence. It’s clear that Lee’s enthusiasm comes alive when he begins depicting the rather small-scale local Klan operation, led by the mild-mannered Walter (Ryan Eggold) and the borderline psychotic Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). These Klan members are goofy and more than a little ridiculous, but they’re always presented with an undercurrent of palpable danger as their hate bubbles to the surface in barrages of epithets. This is a movie in which the N-word never loses its power, in stark contrast to the films of Quentin Tarantino, to which Lee has very publicly objected in the past.

Washington and Driver have a very interesting dynamic between them, with Stallworth driven by righteous anger and a desire to change things, while Driver struggles with his own Jewish identity. It’s in their discussions that the movie is most interesting, as opposed to the endless scenes of the Klan randomly spewing hate while metaphorically stumbling over the end of their cloaks or cheering at a screening of The Birth of a Nation. In his desire to express all of his anger, Lee loses sight of the structure of his drama, which often seems aimless and meandering rather than delivering a hammer blow at the prejudices of today’s America.

It’s in its sideswipes at modern America that the film struggles the most. The movie is littered with very obvious, clunking punchlines directed at the Trump regime, arriving on screen with the subtlety of a marching band falling down a hill. When one character says that “America would never elect somebody like David Duke”, they may as well have turned to wink at the camera, and the same is true of the moment in which Duke – brought to life with just the right amount of slime by Topher Grace – declares his desire to “give America its greatness again”. Does that remind you of anyone? Geddit, guys? It’s like Trump? Geddit?!

As much as BlacKkKlansman becomes a little exhausting as it reaches the end of its running time – just shy of two hours – it finds its potency in the final moments. Lee uses newsreel footage of the riots in Charlottesville to explain the importance of tackling racial prejudice today, culminating with a final shot that is as chilling and emotionally hard-hitting as anything that has appeared on a cinema screen this year. As is par for the course with a “Spike Lee joint”, this is a somewhat incoherent tale, but one that works as a result of its very clear point of view, its sense of humour and an array of genuinely impressive performances.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Cinematic newcomer John David Washington is the charismatic anchor who just about keeps Spike Lee’s runaway train on the tracks throughout BlacKkKlansman. It’s a movie that thrives when it focuses on Washington’s cop and his relationship with reluctant partner Adam Driver. Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of ramshackle plotting and unfocused rage to shake the foundations of the storytelling, but Lee rescues it all with a final hammer blow that hits the nail of prejudice right on its white-hooded head.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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