BlacKkKlansman movie review: Spike Lee's tonally inconsistent film draws power from particular moments
Although BlacKkKlansman may lack the finesse of Spike Lee's more accomplished efforts, it cannot distract from the significance of its message
In a telling moment at the end of BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee shows Ron Stallworth, the film’s black cop protagonist, hanging up the phone on a white supremacist leader with a thunderous slam that reverberates through the predominantly white police station. Then, as if that isn’t enough, he gives us the same shot from another angle. Slam! You got served, the director appears to shout, the receiver hammered down like a gavel, hoping the clang is loud enough to rattle the audience, alerting them to the sceptre haunting America today.
Lee’s never been shy of wearing his community’s culture and politics on his sleeve. Part of the World Cinema section at MAMI 2018, the director’s latest joint, based on self-professed “some fo’ real fo’ real shit”, pulsates with an urgency borne out of national anxiety and a pressing need to shake things up. Do The Right Thing (1989), quite possibly his masterpiece, ended with iconic images of a raging inferno. More often than not, one can make out flames and embers and often even the raw, manic energy of that influential film rearing their head in BlacKkKlansman. Although his latest may lack the finesse of his more accomplished efforts, it cannot possibly distract from the significance of the message it has to deliver.
And deliver it Lee does, erecting Stallworth’s unbelievable but true story as a scaffolding to mount a vicious assault on the racist foundations of American culture. As far as cinema is concerned, he goes straight for the jugular. There are extended sequences ripping apart Birth of a Nation, DW Griffith’s celebrated lent classic, for its overtly racist and jingoistic tone. Hell, he even begins BlacKkKlansman with a crane shot of the Confederate flag as shown in Gone With the Wind, widely considered an American classic. Lee’s never been afraid of blurring the lines between film and manifesto. By choosing to end the film with footage from the Charlottesville attack last year, he positions his film as a perilously balanced act in between a rock and a hard place of image and reality.
The act itself consists of Stallworth’s (John David Washington)—the first black officer in Colorado Springs—brave decision to infiltrate the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan’s local chapter in the 1970’s. He chooses Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be his partner in carrying out his plan. “Fluent in the Queen’s English as he is in jive”, Stallworth’s smooth talk over the phone convinces the leader of the chapter to meet him in person. This is where Zimmerman chips in as his white self. The set-up is as strange as it sounds. If it hadn’t been a true story, it would have ran the risk of being considered too goofy for its own good. Stallworth’s plan is to collect enough evidence to arrest the KKK’s members. But things suddenly come to a head when David Duke, the national head of the KKK comes to town and Stallworth, in a tragicomic turn of events, is chosen to be his bodyguard.
The fundamental flaw in BlacKkKlansman lies in Lee’s inability to consistently draw the necessary drama out of this outrageous story. One can owe it to his tendency to lapse into stirring set-pieces, often monologues or speeches, where he grabs the audience by the throat and makes them listen to the tragic unfolding of history. The sequences are memorable by themselves, but they force Lee to scramble together the strands of the main plot in order to keep the story going. This results in a tonally inconsistent film that draws its immense power from particular moments. One can only imagine where this film would have gone had Lee chosen to keep the narrative tightly wound, with those moments to flail their arms in wild horror at appropriate junctures and shake the audience to its roots.
Lee’s perhaps rightly convinced that metaphors would no longer do the job in a post-truth age exemplified by the rise of a tyrannical buffoon to the presidency. The director wants to make sure that everybody understands the target he’s aiming at. So there are multiple references to making America great again. Lee repeatedly has his white supremacist mouth grammatically incorrect lines, with someone at hand to correct them. Stallworth and his love interest share long discussions about the representation of black people in cinema and the way ahead for the revolution. That Lee does all that while maintaining a comic tone, a glossy, Hollywoody spitlick sheen for texture and a commercial look to the film goes a long way towards revealing his intentions. The young people’s heated anti-capitalist discussions often take place in pristine environments created due to private enterprise. Patrice (Laura Harrier), Stallworth’s love interest, a fiery politically aware student, drives a blood-red car that stands out within every single frame. Lee is completely aware of the factors that have led to the making of his film. And he is at pains to communicate the same to his audience.
BlacKkKlansman has a lot to say and, more often than not, it says it out loud. We hear the message and Lee gives us time to digest it before he proceeds to mount an assault on another target. Driver and Washington’s performances, their banter in particular, is a highlight of the acting strength on display in this film, often vulnerable to going unnoticed due to the outrageousness of the story and Lee’s sloganeering. It is an important, important film event; one that will hopefully be supplemented by similar efforts from other mediums to keep the conversation and the belief in the power of the common person alive in these ominous times.
Editor's note: The 20th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.
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