Having wowed me at Cannes where it won the Grand Prix, Spike Lee’s latest “joint” is now out in the UK for all to see, and everyone must.
It builds to a head of righteous anger, featuring documentary footage of the clashes at Charlottesville last year.
Those real-life scenes form a shocking, chilling coda to Lee’s colourful, seriocomic movie, bringing the 70s-set story up to the present with startling relevance – and, for me, a snarling brilliance laced wth bitter, biting humour. Say it loud: Spike’s back and proud.
The film’s title appears on the screen in the blocky graphic font of a Blaxploitation hero like Shaft, signalling the tone (or one of the tones) of the movie, one based on scarcely believable true events, about a black, Colorado Springs detective called Ron Stallworth who infiltrated the upper echelons of the local Ku Klux Klan, forming a close telephone relationship with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
If that sounds like a premise for a comic skit, or some spoof like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or Undercover Brother, well, the film indeed has many funny moments, but Lee’s intentions are super serious and he’s far too conscious of black culture to ever lampoon it, even while his characters indulge in conversations about, say, the merits of Shaft over Superfly and play with the syntax of jive.
As ever with this director, you can’t draw a straight line through it. You have to ride the flow, jumping from pastiche to homage to political commentary, black “wokeness” and a stylish dance number in the Soul Train mould (great to hear 1972’s soul classic Too Late To Turn Back Now by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, among others on the soundtrack).
Aided by his white – Jewish- colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who does the face-to-face meetings with local Klansmen, Ron (played charismatically by John David Washington, son of Denzel) continues his phone chats with Duke but also gets undercover with the local Black Panthers, particularly with a beautiful, firebrand, Angela Davis-style activist called Patrice (a striking Laura Harrier).
It’s a film that grows in stature and confidence, becoming more exciting as the climax approaches and also more political, with a bravura (almost fantasy) cross-cutting sequence in which a character played by Harry Belafonte addresses a Black Power meeting with a history lesson about a lynching, while the Klan sit around watching and hollering at DW Griffith’s 1916 racist “classic” Birth of Nation.
It might not be Lee’s masterpiece – he’s still vexed that Do The Right Thing didn’t win the top prize at Cannes back in 1989, losing to sex, lies and videotape – but BlackkKlansman is urgent, exciting, great to look at, wildly entertaining and its raised fist delivers the sort of political punch cinema needs right now.
I was laughing, grooving, shouting and shocked. You come out inspired and pumped, angry but uplifted. Very few directors can do that to you. Spike’s one of the best and most significant film makers still working the big screen, still fighting the power, you dig?
Should you see Blackkklansman? Hell yeah.