BlacKkKlansman, Cannes 2018, review: Spike Lee takes President Trump to task

Spike Lee returns to the Cannes Film Festival after 25 years and Do The Right Thing 

Kaleem Aftab
Tuesday 15 May 2018 09:50

It’s been 25 years since Spike Lee was last in competition at Cannes with Jungle Fever. In the run-up to the festival, he’s been talking about how it still burns that Do The Right Thing, arguably one of the greatest films of the 20th Century, didn’t win the Palme d’Or in 1989.

It’s been many years since Inside Man, the New York-based director’s last box-office hit and two of his most recent films, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) and Red Hook Summer (2012), have not even been released in the UK. His return to Cannes with BlacKkKlansman is also a magnificent return to form.

The film is a hugely entertaining and humourous story about a black police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by Spike Lee regular Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington) who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan.

It is loosely based on the true story and memoir of Stallworth, which has been given a Spike Lee makeover and packs a powerful punch when it absconds from being a 1970s-set farce to make a comment about the Charlottesville rally and the current racial divide in Trump’s America. It’s the director’s most controversial ending since Do The Right Thing.

With the election of Trump and before that the #BlackLivesMatter campaign there has been a feeling that the divided race politics of present-day America has finally caught up with the opinions being spouted by Lee throughout his career and in his movies.

Lee’s politicking has made him a divisive figure, both loved and hated in equal measure, depending on what side of Malcolm X Boulevard you are sitting on.

With BlacKkKlansman, a rare effort from the director in which he has been hired in on a project, he has finally been handed a story where the race question feels integral to the action rather than the director tagging on a social comment that he feels compelled to impose on a tale.

The film starts with Alec Baldwin playing a racist leader practicing a speech proclaiming white power in front of movie clips of images that could have been one of the montages from Lee's highly underrated Bamboozled (2000) Baldwin’s bashing of black people is a hilarious cameo, a warm-up act before the main event.

Most of the movie is about Stallworth becoming the first African-American police officer in Colorado and being fast-tracked into the undercover team when they need a person of colour to infiltrate a student politics meeting being hosted by Kwame Ture. There he meets the head of the students union Patricia (Laura Harrier) and gets his head turned, politically.

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To infiltrate the KKK, Stallworth needs someone to be his avatar. In the most unlikely twinning since Arnold Schwarzenegger was matched with Danny DeVito, Adam Driver plays his fellow cop and Stallworth double. They are a great match in a film that has a 70s aesthetic that is pointedly more Starsky and Hutch than Blaxploitation.

France was where the auteur theory was born and while it’s unusual to see Lee make an out-and-out comedy, there are also many of his signatures, including the constant breaking of the fourth wall and his trademark dolly shot. There is also a lovely use of movie posters as Patrice and Stallworth debate on a date.

Lee does something quite remarkable throughout. The film could easily have been a fun escapade but the director throughout makes comments on the present day American political divide with ironic jokes.

Then comes the Charlottesville footage and an ending that makes it clear that the America of today is as divided along race lines as it was in the Civil Rights era. This is Lee taking President Trump to task.

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