BlacKkKlansman

 

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A longer review than usual in order to cover a film that is half brilliant and half disappointing.

   

BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver and John David Washington

  

The first half of BlacKkKlansman is excellent, so good that it appears set to justify the film having received the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, but then it nosedives making one query that award regardless of one's approval of the film's intentions. Being a prize-winner may well help the film to become a commercial success as will its astute publicity: seeking to bring in a wide audience, it emphasises not only the name of its long established director and co-writer, Spike Lee, but courts youngsters by stressing that one of the producers is that currently 'in' figure Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out.

 

The title may be tricksy but it's appropriate and genuinely informative: this is a film about the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and is about a black man, Ron Stallworth played by John David Washington son of Denzel, who in 1973 as a member of the Colorado Springs Police Department did indeed join that white supremacist clan. Incredible as it sounds, it is the true story of how Stallworth contacted the then local chapter president of the KKK, expressed his support for their views and was invited to become a member. Thus, infiltration went ahead and saw Ron in touch by telephone with such KKK members as leading light David Duke (Topher Grace) while another cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), mixed with them pretending to be Ron. Since Flip was white, this was easy to do, but even so the film shows him having to deny the fact that he is Jewish because the KKK's white supremacist outlook extended to it being anti-Jewish.

 

Lee might have taken this material and presented it in starkly realistic terms as a means of making an audience ignore the inherent absurdity of the hoax. Instead, he does something much more interesting and original: he provides a stylised entertainment which relishes the fact that this absurdity has a comic side (he positively invite the audience to laugh - and not infrequently either). Nevertheless, he simultaneously brings out the full horror of what the KKK represented. This latter element is made all the stronger by the way in which Lee allows these events of the 1970s to evoke parallels with today's America under Trump - and, once again, there is a balance, the seriousness of that being set against dialogue that humorously makes the link. So far, so good: the aim is novel and effective and the players are all accomplished (others not yet mentioned include Ryan Eggold as the local KKK leader, Laura Harrier as Patrice, a black activist to whom Ron is attracted and Corey Hawkins as Kwarme Ture, the name adopted at that time by the former Stokely Carmichael, who appears in a powerful scene in which he addresses a black audience).

 

Not for the first time Spike Lee gives us a long film (this one runs for 135 minutes) and that means that the fall from grace in the film's second half covers a considerable period of time. It's not just one problem that arises but several. At its close, the film offers the familiar disclaimer that although based on fact certain elements have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes. Lee's chosen approach ensures that we accept the unlikely but real situation at the heart of this movie, but the second half of BlacKkKlansman comes to feel cliché-ridden and fictional. Ron Stallworth although on undercover duty becomes involved with an activist named Patrice Dumas and, by the time that an attack planned by the KKK specifically threatens Patrice's life, it feels like a conventional contrived climax made the more fraught because in trying to warn her of her impending danger Ron cannot reveal that his knowledge stems from the fact he is a cop. I checked up on Patrice Dumas after the screening and it was no surprise at all to learn that she never actually existed.

 

It's also around this point in the film that Lee offers us a terribly self-conscious sequence in which through intercutting he shows a KKK gathering watching D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation approvingly at the very same time that a black group is deploring the same movie during a talk by a visiting speaker (this role providing Harry Belafonte no less with a welcome cameo appearance). The attempt to build a climax out of the planting of a bomb leads to the comic elements being downplayed for a while although earlier the actual bomber, a female (Ashlie Atkinson), has come across as a caricature figure. Thereafter Lee seeks misguidedly to reintroduce the comic aspect. First, a nasty cop, a patrolman played by Frederick Weller, gets his comeuppance in a scene that invites us to relish it. Then, even more emphatic in its humour, we have  another short scene, this being one in which Ron telephones David Duke and reveals to the latter's utter discomfort that the man he had spoken to over the telephone feeling confident that he was white was in fact black.

 

Throughout the film the screenplay makes it clear that this tale is relevant to Trump's America and this often works well, but in some of its later stages the film becomes increasingly less subtle about it. The link is then made explicit since Lee incorporates footage from the violence seen in Charlottesville in 2017. This recent material scores a bull's eye when it reveals the presence in Charlottesville of somebody featured in the earlier narrative, but these disturbing modern scenes come immediately after the giggling comedy of the scene showing Duke's discomfort: here it's no longer a balance of humour and seriousness that works but a tonal shift that jars badly. Because of Trump, BlacKkKlansman emerges as a disturbingly apt work for our times, but, given that the first half is so impressive, Lee's inability to maintain that standard is all the more to be regretted.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin, Paul Walter Hauser, Harry Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, Nicholas Turturro.

 

Dir Spike Lee, Pro Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele, Spike Lee and Shaun Redick, Screenplay Charlie Watchel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, based on the book Black Klansman Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth, Ph Chayse Irvin, Pro Des Curt Beech, Ed Barry Alexander Brown, Music Terence Blanchard, Costumes Marci Rodgers.

  
Universal Pictures/Focus Features/Legendary Pictures/QC Entertainment/Blumhouse/Monkeypaw and 40 Acres and a Mule/A Spike Lee Joint-Universal Pictures.
135 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 24 August 2018. Cert. 15.