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Thursday, August 23, 2018


Spike Lee is in sparkling form with this riotous social satire about a black police officer infiltrating a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. (9/10). Review by Patrick Compton

Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing so brilliantly lit up the 1980s with its pinpoint presentation of race relations in America, is a welcome breath of toxic air gusting through the safely lowbrow Durban movie scene in which comic book superheroes boringly predominate.

The American black director’s latest sulphurous work is based on a slice of reality that is hard to believe, in which a black policeman infiltrates a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Based on the 2014 memoir of Colorado’s first American-American police officer, Ron Stallworth, it plays less like a faithful docudrama than a social satire used as a potent weapon to strike back at the current state of America under President Donald Trump.

The first thing to note is that this film is very funny, but our laughter is tinged by the knowledge that the issues raised are deadly serious ... nothing less than the racism that currently disfigures the country.

One critic has described this movie as a “wildly uneven but righteous fuck you to Trump”. I’m not sure about the former label, but there’s no disguising the latter assessment: this is Lee giving the president and all his cohorts both barrels, suggesting that little has changed in the US of A in the last 50 years.

The action is set in the 1970s with Stallworth, complete with radical afro hairdo, joining the Colorado Police as their first black recruit. As beguilingly played by John David Washington, former football star and son of Denzel, Stallworth gets a taste of the racist hurdles ahead of him when he begins a humiliating stint in the records department.

But it is when he moves into undercover work that the pace – and the satire – pick up. His first assignment is at a meeting addressed by Black Panther Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) where he meets and falls for prickly activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), a lookalike Angela Davis.

Throughout the movie, Stallworth’s personal identity, as a proud but put-upon black man living in a white man’s society, conflicts with his professional mission as a cop.

This issue comes centre stage when he responds to a Ku Klux Klan ad in the local newspaper asking for more members. Stallworth, who has some expertise in modulating his voice to talk “the king’s English”, duly phones up the Klan pretending to be a white racist. The infiltration exercise is duly carried out in the flesh by a white (Jewish) policeman, Flip (Adam Driver), who has almost as many issues about his (concealed) origins as Stallworth.

This is a movie in which serious and funny bounce off each other like the action you get in a pinball machine. Lee has a lot of fun with the white right, exposing it as comically idiotic but never forgetting that it is also extremely dangerous. The grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace) is played like smooth-talking bureaucrat, while the most vicious extremist, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), comes closest to instilling a real sense of fear.

Lee is not afraid to enrich the story with documentary and movie history. The former offers a chilling climax to the film with scenes from last year’s disgraceful “unite-the-right” demonstration in Charlottesville (partly defended by Trump) in which a woman is run over and killed by a racist, while scenes from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind cleverly punctuate the action.

And there is a particularly impressive piece of cross-cutting between an old black activist addressing his young audience (black power) and a creepy sub-Masonic ceremony by the KKK (white power).

Perhaps, after all, the very richness of Lee’s cinematic armoury does lead to some unevenness of presentation, but this doesn’t hurt the film that positively bursts out of any potential straitjacket. And one thing is for sure, most of Lee’s salvoes explode precisely on the Trumpian jaw.

BlacKkKlansman opens in Durban on September 7, 2018. – Patrick Compton