BLACKKKLANSMEN opens with a shot similar to the famous one seen in the poster of one of Spike Lee’s best films DO THE RIGHT THING. The shot is focused on the centre of the image but the characters stand around in the perimeter. Both that film and his new Cannes premiere hit BLACKKKLANSMEN tackle the problem of racism with savage brutality. Though this film contains more content, Lee tones down his anger a little compared to the more energetic DO THE RIGHT THING.
The film is based on the autobiographical book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. Set in 1970s Colorado, the plot follows an African-American detective Stallworrth (former footballer John David Washington and son of Denzel) who sets out to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan.
The film arrives after lots of hype after the Cannes premiere where many critics have hailed the film as one of the Top 10 films screened there. The truth is that the film is that good though not without flaws. It competed for the Palme d’Or and won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER’s climatic scene where he intercut the talking of peace with the different crime bosses to the execution of the bosses has irony been so vividly captured on screen. Lee intercuts the two rallies of the rise of black power to that of white power in one of the film’s key segments. Best still is the irony on display when Jewish cop Adam Driver denounces his Jewish heritage as Lee’s camera is placed in the position to emphasize Driver’s semitic nose.
Lee is fond of filming his segments with the camera slanted with a resulting slanted frame, used by many directors to emphasize a distortion of the events occurring on screen. Lee uses the tactic several times, particularly during the black rallies.
Though basically a period piece, Lee ties in current events to the story. There is a shot of Trump’s speech about very bad people in demonstrations s well as newsreel footage of violent police and crowd clashes during demonstrations in the August of 2017. Trump’s favourite line of making America great again is echoed in the film’s dialogue during of of the Ku Klax Klan leader’s speeches. Lee obtained permission to include the image in his film of Heather Heyer who called killed by the car ploughing into the crowd during a white supremacy rally.
Lee’s film not only incites anger among African Americans but also among Jews and gays. It is as if Lee is recruiting allies agains redneck whites in the movie.
It is always a pleasure to watch Adam Driver in a film. Driver (PATERSON) delivers an astonishing and powerful performance without having to resort of cheap theatrics, written dialogue or bouts of put-on anger. His mannerisms and body language tell all. Alec Baldwin is also memorable and hilarious as a bigoted doctor speaking on white supremacy. But all the white racists are treated as silly, stupid and ignorant country bumpkins, easy target for Stallworth and the good cops. It would be a more challenging task to have them made a more formidable foe.
The film contains lots of film references like the opening scene with the famous GONE WITH THE WIND street scene where wounded soldiers lay scattered to the blackpoitation films like SUPER FLY, COFFY, CLEOPATRA JONES and SHAFT. Included for laughs is a debate on who is better, Ron O’Neal or Richard Roundtree? The racist D.W. Griffith’s classic, BIRTH OF A NATION is also given special treatment – Spike Lee style.
BLACKKKLANSMAN is quite good but could have been more effective if Lee put more anger and opted less for comedy in the film.