Spike Lee’s most obvious touchpoint as a major film director is his obsession with the African-American experience, which he translates to the screen in the most uncompromising terms. For that reason, he often oversteps his subjects when it comes to form and style. The manic qualities that made critics notice him early on have never receded, and are often at odds with what seems to be his purpose in making a particular film. Certainly, Do the Right Thing is the clearest example of this mode of presentation when it works sucessfully. Malcolm X proves that he can also pretty much address his obsession in more conventional ways and produce something worthwhile, but it feels more like an exception rather than the rule.
BlacKkKlansman is Lee in full-on Spike mode. The obsessions are worked fully from the very first scene, which features Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist delivering racist talking points to a sympathetic audience. The casting seems as vital to the movie’s theme as any other element, since Baldwin, both publicly and privately, has a reputation as a risk-taker and a blowhard, so you carefully listen to the offensive gibberish dressed up as some kind of scientific treatise. It’s 1979, more than a decade after the Civil Rights Movement had made its most powerful statements, and the Klan is still a force to be reckoned with. Based on a book by retired African-American cop Ron Stallworth, the movie chronicles Stallworth’s infiltration and exposure of a Klan recruitment drive in Colorado Springs. Given the above-mentioned style preferences, the script is conceived as the kind of broad comedy you might have seen at a theater in the year it takes place, and Lee revels in ancillary business, like an all-Black disco night, extreme Afro hairstyles, and whether or not Black Power was still a righteous thing in 1979 or more of a fashion trend. Some African-Americans, like the rapper-film director Boots Riley, have taken issue with Lee’s version of events, saying that BlacKkKlansman seriously misrepresents Stallworth’s book, but it’s obvious from the start that Lee means to make of Stallworth’s story something more incendiary, something that speaks to the Trump era with the kind of force that Do the Right Thing did in the midst of the Reagan-Bush years.
The absurdist tack of the film is best represented by the relationship between Stallworth (John David Washington), an obviously tokenized member of the Colorado Springs police department, and his white Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Though Stallworth devises the strategy to take down the Klan in his town and even gets the ball rolling by faking a “white accent” while asking about joining the organization, he can’t possibly do the real undercover work, and so recruits Zimmerman with the hook that the Klan hates Jews, too. Meanwhile, Stallworth is dating a woman, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who is fully invested in the local Black Power movement and suspicious of Stallworth’s career trajectory, a situation that allows Spike to air all the conflicting arguments of whether Black Americans can trust any aspect of the white power structure.
Spike never quite gets these two aspects—the didactic, meat-and-potatoes race conversation and the entertainment content, which slides back-and-forth between standard sitcom jokes and police procedural—to sync as well as he thinks they do, but the movie’s relentless pace and insistence on being edgy to the point of outrage make the ride worthwhile. It’s certainly Lee’s most potently effective film in a long time, but anyone who knows his work well should automatically take that recommendation with a grain of salt.
Opens March 22 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
BlacKkKlansman home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Focus Features LLC