MOVIE REVIEW: Spike Lee’s blast from the past
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Running time: 135 minutes
RATING: THREE-AND-A-HALF STARS
The hunger for African-American stories has never been greater, with Hollywood movies in all kinds of genres triumphing at the box office: Hidden Figures, Creed, Get Out, BlackPanther.
Now BlacKkKlansman arrives in the guise of a deep cover detective thriller, although it wears its true purpose - to arouse anger at racism in America - on its sleeve. It's the largely true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s and was even nominated to become the leader of a chapter of the anti-black, anti-Semitic organisation.
We meet Stallworth (played by Denzel's son, John David Washington) as he's joining the force, the first African-American to serve in his district. After a short time languishing in records, he's given a plainclothes task spying on a Black Power meeting, which puts his ability to separate his job from his beliefs to its first crucial test and introduces him to alluring student organiser Patrice (Laura Harrier).
Promoted to undercover work, Stallworth impetuously answers a KKK newspaper ad, claiming to "hate (N-words)", and ends up joining the KKK by correspondence.
Over the phone he even gains the confidence of the Klan's charismatic 'grand wizard', David Duke (Topher Grace). For face-to-face meetings with various Klan crazies he enlists his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Zimmerman has to try to imitate Stallworth's voice but is in no less danger among these violent bigots as he's Jewish.
The story of this incredible subterfuge represents an entertaining return to form for veteran African-American director Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X), although subtle it ain't.
Lee and his co-screenwriters drop several references to Donald Trump's America into BlacKkKlansman's screenplay and the film concludes with distressing footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riot where white supremacists fatally clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters. Not only have things not changed since the '70s, Lee is saying in bold caps, they have worsened.
The power of entertainment to change attitudes is foregrounded here. Characters discuss the merits of Blaxploitation heroes such as Shaft, and there are pointed clips from two bygone, racist blockbusters: Gone With the Windand The Birth of a Nation. Lee even throws in a cameo by Alec Baldwin narrating a white supremacy training film.
Lee's scattershot approach is fun and refreshing, but things go awry with the script's fictitious Klan plot involving a bombing that is clearly there to amp up the tension in the third act and defies all credibility.
But for the most part BlacKkKlansman achieves the feat of turning American hate into an appealing cinematic romp. Because if you want to educate audiences but the subject matter keeps them away, why even bother?