Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Review: "BlacKkKlansman"

I’ve been looking forward to “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s been awhile since I could say I was genuinely anticipating a new Spike Lee movie.

Heck, I’ll admit that lately I haven’t been aware when a new Lee “joint” -- his word for his work -- has been about to come out. Let’s just say the acclaimed cinematic purveyor of African-American experiences hasn’t been the cultural force he once was in the 1980s or ‘90s. I think “Miracle of St. Anna” from a decade ago was his last feature I saw in a theater.

“BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, an annual event that lately has told us more about how the French feel about America or its current president than they do about a particular film.

Lee’s movie, based oh-so-loosely on the true story of a black police officer who successfully infiltrated (sorta) the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, is an explicitly anti-Trump movie that unambiguously links the president’s worst rhetoric with the overtly racist tactics of white supremacy groups of the day.

They’re still doing the same things, Lee argues, they’ve just dressed it up in more palatable terms.

Based on the book by Ron Stallworth, with a screenplay Lee collaborated on with Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott and David Rabinowitz, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Stallworth (a charismatic John David Washington) as he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s. Through grit, talent and spunk, he moves up from the records room to undercover detective.

His first assignment: infiltrate a speech by the former Black Panther firebrand Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) to see if he’s riling up Colorado Afro-Americans. (Pity that term didn’t outlive the ebony nimbus hairdos of the day, which are replicated for the film to glorious effect.)

There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the local black student union. He finds himself sympathetic to their revolutionary rhetoric, and drawn to her passion.

After seeing a recruitment ad in the local paper by the KKK, Ron calls up the number and uses his “white voice” to convince them he’s an Aryan type who hates all people of color. The relationship builds until they want to meet in person, which presents an obvious problem. So fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is brought in to play Ron in the face-to-face encounters, with the real Ron listening in via the wire attached to the ersatz one’s chest.

The Klansmen are an assortment of buffoons, mouth-breathers and dead-enders, so we never really take them too seriously. Topher Grace plays Grand Wizard/Executive Director David Duke, who’s still a prominent voice in the white supremacist movement, as a gullible -- even slightly needy -- fellow who thinks in Ron he’s found a fellow traveler.

They talk on the phone frequently, and at one point Ron even goads Duke into claiming he can tell the difference between a white man’s voice and a black one’s.

The only one who’s truly scary is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most militant member of the local Klan. He is immediately suspicious of Flip, insisting he looks like a Jew (he is), and suspects him of trying to infiltrate the group for nefarious purposes (right again). His warnings go unheeded, of course.

Like a lot of Spike Lee’s films, “BlacKkKlansman” mixes comedic satire with barely suppressed rage. Much of the actual events depicted are Hollywood inventions, which is par for the course.

We drink in Ron’s brazenness, laugh at the cartoon Klansmen and, if we’re so disposed politically, nod our head sagely when Lee cuts to news footage of Trump or Duke speaking contemporaneously.

It’s an entertaining, messy film that thinks a bit too much of itself.

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