Monday, 27 August 2018

Film Review - BlacKkKlansman (15)

I'm happy to be talking to a true white American.
Troubled times produce creative responses. Steven Spielberg's reaction to Trump era claims of fake news was The Post, a story of the free press holding the government to account when it misinformed the public. Now in BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee tackles America's racist upsurge under its current political administration. And in doing so he crafts one of the most accessible, compelling and provocative films of his career. Did I mention entertaining and funny? I'll get to that.
BlacKkKlansman, though heavy with contemporary relevance, is based in recent US history; like The Post it's set during the upheaval of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. Its inspiration is the unfeasible but true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Police Department. Acting on his own initiative, Stallworth established contact with a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, with a view to infiltrating them. Unable to show up in person (for obvious reasons), he asked a white fellow-detective to act as a surrogate. Hence there were two Rons - the one who sustained phone contact, and his partner who played him at Klan meetings. 
Spike Lee takes this factual basis and uses it to forge a taut police thriller that also draws on the tumultuous racial politics of 1970s America. Stallworth is played by John David Washington, son of Denzel, in a performance to make his dad proud. Equipped with smarts, panache and one of the best afros in the history of cinema, he's a magnetic protagonist, reminiscent of iconic Blaxploitation hero John Shaft. His teammate on the force is Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman, Star Wars' Adam Driver supplying equal dramatic weight, as a guy who till now has more easily been able to ignore the prejudice levelled against him. The rapport established between the two of them and their colleagues is easy, natural and a consistent source of laugh-out-loud moments. 
It's a relief in a story with a core of darkness. If humour is one side of this coin, horror is the other - not the blood-and-guts kind, but rather the stink of naked racism. The Klan scenes are claustrophobic enough to make your skin crawl; heavy with bile and vicious racial insults, they're also nuanced enough in the characters they portray to feel scarily real. And having an undercover Jewish cop relaxing in their fetid company heightens our response. Enter David Duke, one-time Grand Wizard of the KKK (portrayed here by Topher Grace as the suave and articulate public face of intolerance), and the creep-factor only intensifies. 
Spike Lee has made politically confrontational films over three decades and he pulls no punches here - whether referencing dubious racial stereotypes from Hollywood's past or echoing recent Trumpian rhetoric in the dialogue. The early '70s setting also enables him to explore tensions over how best to combat racism; Stallworth's 'change the system from within' stance is pitted against the more radical sympathies of the girl he's dating (Spiderman: Homecoming's Laura Harrier with a 'fro to match her attitude). The most heartening aspect of the movie, however, is Lee's respect for Stallworth's approach - something emphasised in the film's searing conclusion.
BlacKkKlansman is an ambitious brew of funky '70s style (its soundtrack is glorious), tense police procedure and toxic racial politics. It's a magnificently realised period piece and a bitingly contemporary satire - one fuelled by the fire that recent events have lit under the director's ass. While it will undoubtedly stick around as a high-point in Lee's career, the time to see it is now.
Gut Reaction: Much laughter - some hearty, some uneasy. Cringing discomfort, particularly at one moment of grim racist iconography. Oh, and I was pummelled into silence by the footage with which the film closes. Goddamn.

Where Are the Women?: Harrier is great as student activist Patrice, while Ashlie Atkinson brings a sad-sack humanity to bitter Klan wife Connie.

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a great story, with gutsy and sometimes hilarious central performances. But it also punches like a heavyweight. The most important film I'm seen so far this year, and one of the best.

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