Saturday 8 September 2018

The boys in the hoods: "BlacKKKlansman"

The first question to ponder is this: has Spike Lee attained a new maturity, or just rediscovered a measure of his past form? BlacKKKlansman, Lee's biggest critical and commercial hit in over a decade, follows hot on the heels on last year's debut season of dazzling Netflix fresco She's Gotta Have It, wherein this restless writer-director added layers of detail to a story that served as scratchy indie provocation back in 1986, resulting in an artefact that was at once a supremely fresh-seeming romantic comedy, a treatise on African-American artistic endeavour through the ages, a state-of-the-American-nation address, and a pinnacle of televised art to be set alongside David Lynch's Twin Peaks revisit. The erstwhile moviebrat's haphazard transition to industry elder statesman is confirmed by this supremely savvy new film, which proceeds from one of those one-of-a-kind, almost-too-good-to-be-true true stories that earn filmmakers the ears of studio executives and get the resulting movies into multiplexes and the awards conversation: the tale of black detective Ron Stallworth, and how he came to go undercover within the Colorado chapter of the infamously anti-black Ku Klux Klan. For the most part, this tale is told in a manner vastly more restrained than Lee's earlier work; only its prologue and coda would be immediately recognisable as belonging to a Spike Lee joint. What falls in between is a jolly romp that just so happens to connect the America of Nixon with the America of Trump.

BlacKKKlansman - that tricksy title speaks to both infiltration and blaxsploitation - opens with what is, in its editorial essence, a black history lecture, although it is the first of the film's many ironies that it should be delivered by a Caucasian. Here we find a harrumphing Alec Baldwin as a patrician George Wallace type overblowing the threat America's blacks have posed to his brethren ever since the abolition of slavery, a dubious thesis supported with choice clips from those racist standbys The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Lee's making the point that the biases written into and confirmed by these founding films prevailed deep into the second half of the last century (as one redneck later phrases it: "Ever since the Cold War, it's always trouble with niggers"), and that Baldwin's basement-dweller trolling might even now find an echo in the words emanating from certain high offices. (It's surely no coincidence that the director should have cast an actor who has reinvented himself in recent years as our foremost celebrity Trump impersonator.) This is the America that rookie cop Stallworth (John David Washington, inheritor of his father Denzel's mellifluous voice) emerges into, and for most of its duration, Lee's film finds its focus in this ever-so-slightly blank hero's dawning realisation of what he's really up against. There is the low-key, institutionalised racism of his station house, where he initially finds his talents squandered in the records room, and the more open aggression of the streets, observed at close quarters in the course of surveilling student radical Patrice (Laura Harrier). Thus does the yarn begin to tie itself into appreciable knots. Shortly after he watches Patrice being harassed by his own colleagues, Ron realises his very particular double-bind: that he is simultaneously insider and outsider.

The GWTW clip with which the film opens is that celebrated pre-intermission scene in which Vivien Leigh's Scarlett arrives in Atlanta only to find herself surrounded by dead and dying soldiers, the camera pulling ever further back until the screen is flooded with casualties. Lee achieves a similar effect through his dialogue, perpetually underlining phrases and passages to show how a saloon-bar service anecdote forms part of a substantially bigger American picture, a half-century or more in the making. Stallworth's subsequent operation to expose key Klan figures - achieved with the assistance of a sympathetic white colleague, Flip Zimmermann (Adam Driver), hiding his Jewishness to get matey with the behooded crossburners - touches upon a wider plot to put someone in the White House who might make supremacism publicly acceptable; it ensnares one especially bumptious Klan hanger-on calling for a new Boston Tea Party, then leads towards Klan wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), spouting prototypical America First rhetoric. This echoing is varyingly subtle; Lee's response would doubtless be that at a time of overt prejudice and unprecedentedly loud dog-whistling, subtlety is far from the fucking point. BlacKKKlansman has instead been conceived, from first, borrowed frame to its sign-off SOS, as an origin story for the upside-down, back-to-front madness of the United States as it is in 2018, where the trolls are on top, and democracy and decency are being trampled underfoot. The conditions for such a reversal were there, lurking undercover, all the while, the film hollers; you just had to open your eyes and ears to them. (Half its audience, rallied - as they were for Black Panther - by the coded colourisation of the title, will maintain they sensed this all along, and that it was the other half who let things slide.) 

A curious thing, then: for at least 120 of these 135 minutes, Lee the gifted imagemaker himself appears to be operating undercover. Aside from one discussion of blaxsploitation, during which posters of Coffy, Superfly et al. flood the screen much as those loving shots of record sleeves were woven into She's Gotta Have It, Stallworth's progress is presented plainly, as the basis of no more or less than an entertaining caper. (The film's closest cousin in this filmography would be 2005's enjoyable outlier Inside Man, this director's biggest hit.) Possibly Lee has reasoned that what America needs now isn't provocation - which was, after all, the ticket Trump stood on - so much as education, and that what American cinema in particular needs is some steady, unsensational images to counter those Griffith entered into popular entertainment. With his wrap-up, however, Lee the keen-eyed editor threatens to convert this yarn into a fuse, knitting together such incendiary business as Harry Belafonte recounting first-hand experience of a lynching, the Klansmen regathering to torch a cross as a threat of worse to come, and a 2001-like cut that yanks us forward to speeding cars scattering anti-fascist protesters on the streets of Charlottesville. Yet a tribute to murdered activist Heather Heyer underscores how Lee's signature ire has in recent times given way to a new ruefulness as to how little we've come in his lifetime. Nothing in BlacKKKlansman is quite as forlornly beautiful as the anti-Trump diatribe that opened She's Gotta Have It's eighth episode, yet this documentary-like coda is where this occasionally on-the-nose yet always engaged and engaging film lands upon a bracing and brilliant symmetry - returning us to the South of Scarlett O'Hara, only this time with the real and regrettable bodycounts that follow from open race war.

BlacKKKlansman is now showing in cinemas nationwide. 

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