BLACKKKLANSMAN: JAMES MURPHY INFILTRATES THE MOST DARING CINEMATIC EVENT OF THE YEAR..
A Spike Lee ‘joint’. The 1970s: Colorado Policeman Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. Twist? He’s black! So he plays the voice on the phone and plans the operation. Cue a partnership with a fellow cop (Adam Driver) as his man in the field. Will they both be found out? Or can they fool one of the most frightening groups in America and thereby gather critical intel in time to foil a race war? Based on a True Story.
BLACKKKLANSMAN unites all the best parts of Cinema craft to provide a substantial, insightful, literate and educative entertainment. First rate acting, cinematography, sound, editing, writing, design, photography and direction. Critically, those strengths are mobilised in service of a story about what it means to be human and truly equal in the face of common good and the eternal threat from /struggle against counterpart evil.
This is a FUN, accessible night at the Pictures that HAPPENS to deal in the most serious matters of racial tension and undercover Police procedure.
ADAM DRIVER is a STAR. Think Keanu Reeves merged with Charles Bronson via a Harrison Ford every-man yet skilled professional quality. A real life services veteran (he has a charity dedicated to performing arts for the military); his performance is invested with the compelling character contradiction of casual determination. Driver is playing a career cop rather than man on a crusade; one believes that the character could take any assignment given by the job. Thanks in part to his build and presence, you buy that that Driver IS a Policeman who can both put on a front to infiltrate a villainous group AND fight his way out if caught. There is a compelling edge of darkness about him whereby one feels he COULD turn and convincingly so; like the tropes of so many undercover cop movies where the good guy goes bad on prolonged exposure to villainy. This is an actor who is playing a Jewish born Policeman, pretending to be an antisemitic racist who must shout racial slurs and hateful profanity without ever giving the game away as to his own decency or discomfort. That’s two performances in one, in effect. Genius. Such a shame that STAR WARS fails to harness Driver more effectively; he could be the roguish action hero: the TRUE heir to Han Solo! Just a matter of time before he finds the right vehicle as leading man. Bravo!
LARA HARRIER and JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON are a beautiful couple. She is like the first girl you loved at school /Uni; radiating the optimistic idealism of student activism, tempered by a naive yet tough determination to prosecute a cause and fight injustice. The way she does up the straps on her coat or adjusts glasses etc: Lara just has a certain indefinable magic: elegant yet earthy. The kind of woman who makes you long to make the world a better place, whilst also reminding you that it’s already perfect, momentarily, in just one glimpse of her smile. Washington is hilarious in what is at least superficially, a film requiring innate comic timing. He knows when to harness that skill but also when to cut that off and in a split second convey fear, conflict, outrage. These two will go far. I’d love to see them reunited in a full rom-com, actually. A whole film of these two just falling in love and living together would be a wonderful thing to watch.
TOPHER GRACE should win an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor. His David Duke is at once comedic, sinister, villainous and tragic. Ably supported by anyone here entrusted with playing Duke’s fellow Klan members. There are of course some outright villains on show but it’s important to note how well Spike Lee, as director, manages to convey the sheer sense of entitled belief that these people allow to consume them.
This is not quite the ‘squeal like a pig’ / DELIVERANCE crew or cartoon neo-nazis. There are of course some nasty nasties (in panto parlance: ‘bigger badder wolves’) alongside the casual racists. But there is also a kind of corporate branded Aryan clubhouse ethic at work, too. This is as much a white collar problem as it is blue. And make no mistake: evil IS there: burning hatred in eyes and sounds matches the ferocity of the burning crosses. But it’s tempered by the sense that some do indeed join race hate groups to just be part of SOMETHING, however repellent the cause.
A pertinent lesson in the fight against terror in ALL its guises, today. At the same time? Just damn fine acting, from ALL performers here.
GENRE, TONE AND PURPOSE all fuse seamlessly. One can see this with a focus on the Klan threat; akin to say Mississippi Burning. You can also be rewarded if seeking a worthy biopic of sorts. This is a slice of the 1970s. And it’s a procedural buddy buddy cop adventure. The hero here wants to be in the field, in the action: be careful what you wish for..etc. There is also BIT of Shakespearean drama / tragedy. David Duke is the kind of man about whom the Bard would write plays were he writing today in that he is portrayed partly as tragi-comic fool, part historical figure of genuine note and menace. There is a great beat and pace to the language and idiom of each demographic on display; almost poetically so? And the romance at the film’s centre feels a bit star crossed, and so on.
Equally, feel free, genuinely to just lap up the comedy! This IS a funny film and unashamedly so. It is frequently about ‘gallows humour’; responding to genuinely scary threats to life and limb. But it’s also character comedy and situational / visual. Spike Lee makes the audience feel like one of the Officers on the team in the story: we laugh with them in a comic camaraderie and bravado as preface /antidote to some genuine ballsy bravery and an undercover voyage to the heart of racist evil. That’s a more immersive experience than ANY 3-D IMAX super-hero fest.
Above all? BLACKKKLANSMAN is a THRILLER. You get a genuine sense of tension, fear and ticking clock races against time. All wrapped in a visually distinctive feast that’s unafraid to talk to the audience about the joys of its own art-form. The picture grading is beautifully atmospheric throughout, as are sound and set design. Grainy, gritty, grimy and yet all so very clear. You FEEL the coffee stained phone books; the plumes of cigarette smoke; the glitter soaked student jive scene. It’s like a living, moving pulp novel, onscreen. Note also the Tarantino-esque scene where the Blaxploitation genre is discussed; and the direct challenge to the legacy of the DW Griffith film, Birth of a Nation. And there is a very special cameo monologue, too (I will not spoil the identity of the actor involved but it’s very moving to see; trust me). Music choices also outstanding. ‘BRANDY..You’re a fine girl..what a GOOD wife you would be..’
Spike Lee makes a mistake by framing things with overstretched codas. There is SUCH a a beautiful ending to the film here with a genuinely uplifting message at its core. But he goes and stuffs that up by over-emphasising the present day parallels with some disheartening footage of last year’s neo-nazi activities in rallies on American streets, as credits roll.
This is a movie that went to great pains throughout to be balanced; painting, in some senses, the BLACK POWER movement being potentially as divisive as its white counterparts. Message was that we aim for unity through protection from crime, disorder and threats to life and liberty; regardless of colour /race/creed etc. Our co-existence in communities is, to some degree, defined by our ability to define crime as an action that transcends boundaries and unites us all in similar fears, rights and reactions.
And it is in striving for that unity, through operations such as the multi-cultural Police Force’s take-down of villainy in ALL guises depicted in this film, that we in turn come to defeat individual examples of racism: be they armed or institutional, civil or criminal, left or right wing. There are of course racists at work in the Cops’ ranks but what’s interesting here is they are the exception, rather than the rule. Colour becomes irrelevant, on civic principle, at least, in the face of such overwhelmingly important public services. THAT was the optimistic heart and soul of this movie for the most part. There would have been no compromise in either quality or morality, style or substance by simply ending on that kind of note as the movie’s true moral motif, moving forward?
Spike: you did not have to lie to us or give us happily ever after. I get that! Mawkishness is not your style and rightly so. But why not give us just enough of a high note to match what had been a most rewarding and thrilling adventure? The greatest weapon against hate is HOPE. We must never forget that.
The heroes in the film achieved the impossible because they believed in themselves and each other. Let’s learn from that and focus on its inspirational example.
OVERALL GRADE/ FINAL COMMENT:
GO SEE BLACKKKLANSMAN. AT ONCE. It will thrill, move, make you laugh, cry, jump, recoil, reflect..and ALL within the space of one outstandingly crafted piece of cinema. Spike Lee’s best since MALCOLM X in terms of quality, substance and thought provoking scope. At the same time: the director is giving us the kind of Popcorn fun he is capable of conjuring (see also Inside Man).
BLACKKKLANSMAN: RECOMMENDED, without Hesitation. A richly textured treat and instant classic. Oscars ahoy! And a solid Box Office return also in order. Something for Everyone; the Best of ALL Cinematic worlds.