If there’s one director perfectly suited to tell a story about a black man pretending to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, its Spike Lee. BlacKkKlansman not only over-delivers on the humour of its own premise, but also functions as a deeply-felt rallying cry at the same time. Although far from perfect, it’s the kind of crowd-pleasing yet politically aware comedy that feels like an instant classic for the Trump era. As Big Pun once said, “Spike Lee couldn’t paint a better picture [of contemporary racism in America].”
Set in the 70s, BlacKkKlansman sees John David Washington playing Ron Stallworth, the first black person to join the police department in his local town of Colorado. A recruitment agent (played by none other than a scene-stealing Isiah (“sheeeeit”) Whitlock, Jr.) asks Stallworth what he would do if another cop called him a “nigger.” Stallworth’s response — that he would be upset but wouldn’t make a larger drama out of it — gives us a good indication of his character: he wants to make an active difference in the community but understands that he has to work within the system to effect any positive change.
Stallworth figures out these structural problems within the police department first-hand during his debut undercover mission, when the intel he discovers regarding a Black Power speaker is used by his fellow officers to harass without charges. Thankfully, his personal mission for racial change is given a renewed desire by an impromptu phone call to the KKK. In a remarkably fiery dialogue reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, Stallworth coolly tells the head of the local chapter that he hates every single race under the sun, but especially black folk. Before he knows it, he has been invited to join. There’s only a couple of problems: number one, he gave his real name, and number two, he’s black.
The concept of infiltration is complicated, with Stallworth agreeing to impersonate the white version of himself on the phone, while his colleague, Flip (Adam Driver), plays him in person. This leads to all sorts of hilarious shenanigans that are better discovered as they develop on their own. Lets just say that the KKK, including David Duke (Topher Grace) himself, aren’t portrayed in a particularly positive light.
Spike Lee has gone for as broad and mainstream an approach a film that features the KKK and every explicit racial slur in the world could allow. This is a smart move; viewers will come for the high-concept comedy and stay for the lessons regarding police brutality, Birth of a Nation, and the Black Power movement. Given the massive success of films such as Get Out and Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman is neatly poised to be the next big movie about race and the state of America.
Still, the film is far from perfect. The narrative is all over the place, repeating facts that don’t need to be repeated, and containing tangents that don’t add much to the overall effect. It also takes far too long to wrap up, featuring an unlikely feel-good sting that comes across as inauthentic. But again, if anyone can make a movie that’s all over the place yet still enjoyable from moment to moment, it’s late-period Spike Lee. Although not reaching the simple, cathartic heights of his masterpiece, Chiraq, BlacKkKlansman is the kind of movie that people have been constantly wanting the fiery auteur to make.
Much of this sentiment is due to Spike Lee letting loose on Donald Trump. Not only is BlacKkKlansman filled with in-jokes to future events (one character theorizes that the future president of the USA will be tied to the KKK), but it actually ends with footage of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, featuring — you guessed it — David Duke and Donald Trump themselves. Spike Lee is unashamedly didactic here, making the movie both an explicit condemnation of racist ideologies and a radical call to arms. Expect a lot of “this is the film we need right now” takes to come over the next few weeks and months. They will be right.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival runs May 8, 2018 – May 19, 2018. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.