Blackkklansman 5 star movie review: Spike Lee's searing satire hits the target
Spike Lee's new drama explores the unchanging face of American racism, says Paul Whitington
The notion of American exceptionalism has rarely seemed more ludicrous than it does right now, but in fairness to President Trump and his seething cabal of anti-democrats, claims of US moral superiority have always been rendered moot by the issue of race. That nation's treatment of its African-American minority is a long catalogue of misery and shame, and any faint hope that the election of a black president would finally break the back of endemic racism was shattered last summer in Charlottesville.
A Unite the Right rally which gathered in the Virginian city to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was met by a counter-protest, and a white supremacist then drove his car into the crowd, killing one and wounding many. Spike Lee's angry, funny and very entertaining new film BlacKkKlansman may be set in the 1970s, but has a strong connection to that event.
One of the 'keynote' speakers in Charlottesville was David Duke, the Holocaust-denying, segregation-loving former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who told an adoring crowd of Swastika-waving 'patriots' that they were going to "take America back": he did not specify from whom. Mr Duke has been posing as the defender of white Anglo-Saxon America for many years now, and in Spike Lee's film he's central to a bizarre and mainly true story.
Former American footballer John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, an ambitious young man who applies for a job at the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1979. There's never been an African-American cop in the town before, and when Ron joins he's met by a wall of hostility. His boss, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) reckons he might have potential, however, and assigns him to go undercover at a talk being given by former Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins).
Though inspired by Carmichael's rousing oratory, Ron does his job well at the meeting, and manages to befriend Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the radical president of the black students' union that invited Carmichael to Colorado Springs. His chief is impressed, and reassigns him to the intelligence division.
One day, when he sees a Ku Klux Klan ad in the paper, Stallworth, on a whim, rings it. When a man answers, Ron affects his best 'white' accent, rails against Jews and 'n****rs' for a bit and says he wants to join. To his surprise, the man on the other end of the phone asks for a meeting. For obvious reasons, Ron can't go himself, so he persuades a white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (the excellent Adam Driver) to pose as him.
Soon, this unlikely double has wormed its way to the heart of the Colorado Spring Klan chapter, and Ron even phones the Grand Wizard David Duke himself (Topher Grace), a much more smooth-talking, mannerly and dangerous racist. By comparison, the local KKK boys seem like dim-witted bozos, but have hatched a daring, murderous plan, and Flip, who's Jewish, is growing tired of listening to their Nazi nonsense.
BlacKkKlansman is a clever, furious, fiercely intelligent picture, and easily the best thing Spike Lee has done in years. His dramatic analysis manages to be both entertaining and profound, and poses such difficult questions as whether it's really possible to be simultaneously American and true to one's African-American identity. And though mired in the politics, fashion and music of the 1970s, the film sweeps back and forth in time as it considers the great blot on America's copy book, the problem that never really goes away.
At one point, civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte appears, playing a wise but melancholy campaigner who describes to young radicals the torture and lynching of an innocent black teenager by a baying 1920s mob in America's south.
On and on this ugliness goes, in subtler forms through the ages, and every time black America thinks it has made progress, some trigger-happy cop or fear-spouting demagogue comes along to remind them otherwise.
BlacKkKlansman (16, 135mins) - 5 stars
Also releasing this week: Movie reviews: The Children Act, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Alpha, Luis and the Alien
Films coming soon...
The Happytime Murders (Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McCale); Searching (Debra Messing, John Cho, Michelle La); Cold War (Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot); I, Dolours (Dolours Price, Lauren Beale, Gail Brady).