Spike Lee’s latest “joint” builds to a head of righteous anger, one that ultimately exploded in the Cannes press conference as the director did the right thing and delivered an expletive filled diatribe against “motherfucker” Donald Trump’s failure to denounce the Klan after the clashes at Charlottesville last year.
Those real-life scenes form a shocking documentary-like 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.
The film’s title appears on the screen in the blocky graphic font of a Blaxploitation hero like Shaft, signalling the tone of the movie, based on scarcely believable true events, about a black, Colorado Springs detective called Ron Smallworth 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 something 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. 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 (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 colleague Flip (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 (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 back in 1989, losing to sex, lies and videotape – but BlackkKlansman is urgent, exciting, great to look at, wildly entertaining and its Black Power fist delivered the sort of political punch Cannes needed. I was laughing, grooving, shouting and came out inspired and pumped. Very few directors can do that to you. Spike’s one of the best and most significant film makers not to have won a Palme – in a festival all about fighting the power, could he do it this time? Fuck yeah.