29 years after he blasted onto the Croisette red carpet with Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee returns to Cannes with BlacKkKlansman, an entertaining romp based on the incredible true-life story of Ron Stallworth, the black undercover detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
Set in Colorado Springs in the early 70s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is set to become the local force’s first black policeman. With his nappy hair and groovy gear, he is very much the outsider, coming across the unit’s unthinking racism as black suspects are referred to as ‘toads’. After a period spent sorting files, he nominates himself for undercover work (and is obviously given the option of narcotics by his boss Chief Bridges – Robert John Burke – in another act of racial profiling), but instead he has to attend a talk organized by the black student union. They’ve invited Kwame Ture to talk, and this is where Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the beautiful union president.
One day, Ron puts in a call to the KKK and thus begins an adventure into the world of white supremacists. Helping him in this is fellow copper Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver): he is the white face of Ron and he’s the one that has to go to group meetings, undergo initiation ceremonies and put himself in physical danger.
Those dangers come courtesy of Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), a KKK member and complete lunatic who wants to sniff out any infiltrators or traitors to his cause. Along with his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), he is the archetypal Klan figure: ignorant, violent and permanently livid at all the perceived wrongs perpetrated by blacks and Jews. Devin Davis (Topher Grace), on the other hand, is a soft touch. He falls for Ron’s charms on the phone and there are plenty of comic moments when Davis (based on David Duke) shows his ignorance.
Lee shot the movie on film and his idea was to create a texture and colour reminiscent of the period. The look comes courtesy of Chayse Irvin, who was responsible for Beyonce’s Lemonade video and also for Hannah, and he’s done a fantastic job. As with all Spike Lee joints, there is great music, and a lovely scene when Ron takes Patrice out dancing at a little local club that does its own rendition of Soul Train.
One issue is that there are very few moments when the audience perceives the very real danger these men faced. Strangely, the one time I felt that Stallworth looked vulnerable was not when he had to protect Davis at a Klan meeting, but when he was alone in the woods: his isolation and blackness made him look incredibly vulnerable in that environment. The film could have done with less frivolity – and fewer prank calls – and instead upped the tension. As his erstwhile sparring partner Quentin Tarantino did in Django Unchained, Lee portrays the KKK as a bunch of dummies and exaggerates their stupidity, with the exception of local leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Connie is exemplifies this over-the-top approach. Yet, as the film’s coda shows, the threat is far from funny and these are not a bunch of rednecks but a powerful, growing force.
In fact, it is in the closing moments that the film finally gets serious. It ends with real footage, used with the permission of Heather Heyer’s mother, of the Charlottesville white power rally and the murder of Heyer. After all the fun and games of the previous two hours, Lee gets serious and packs a final punch. There is a scene in the film with Harry Belafonte’s character recounting the lynching of his friend in 1913. This links to the 1970s and the rise of the Black Panthers. And then we end with the atrocious scenes in Virginia. It is a thread that takes us on a 100-year history of hatred and suppression and Lee’s message is clear: little has changed and there is a risk that things could get a lot worse should we do nothing. Lee says that his hope is to “shake people from their slumber” and he achieves this with his entertaining, ultimately shocking film.