Director of immortals such as Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) blasted out a strangely mediocre effort for urgent times.
BlacKkKlansman (2018) is, at best, a witty political gut-punch made for a certain type of audience that likes to get things served neatly, without much contradictory mess. And why not, fair enough, except this is Spike Lee, and one expects good cinema.
Totalitarian eras demand fierce filmmaking, artistry that delves deep into the beast of bigotry, a depiction of humanity in 3D, cutting satire. Self-indulgent caricature is too weak to budge any stuck mind for even an inch, and that’s what Blackkklansman, in the main, is. This has nothing to do with its genre, and everything to do with intellectual flimsiness. And Spike Lee was never flimsy, until now.
There are saving graces, its smooth and swift, and intensely watchable, with powerful play by Adam Driver, who finds nuance in everything he touches, and Harry Belafonte, just by virtue of auric presence. The scene with his monologue, on the lynching of a childhood friend, almost belongs to an entirely different film – the one Lee probably should have made, until it’s cross-cut with a KKK screening of The Birth Of A Nation (1915), and racist rednecks get to do their racist redneck thing. In an SNL kind of way. Only SNL does it better.
If it had been more artistically rigorous with the slapstick, it could have arrived at Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’, and taken that point home with guns blazing. It might have been brilliant. But it turned out to be merely a sledgehammer to the rusty nail, painting its point across like a shiny billboard.
Its level of focus on US racial affairs could be understood if there was no mention of Vietnam. But Vietnam is mentioned, only to be dismissed along with the radical speech of a Black Panther leader, whose lecture our undercover cop hero Ron Stallworth [a solemn John David Washington] – the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department – infiltrated to gather evidence of anti-American activities. Somehow, this part of the (true) story is then dropped by the fearless Lee of Malcolm X greatness. Stallworth goes on to infiltrate the KKK. By voice, if not in person. That’s also a true. But the outrageous, razor-edge irony is somehow dulled by all the gimmickry.
The last ten minutes of Blackkklansman are pretty damn important though, and deserve a better film. The part where the investigation into the KKK is buried and then we see the full horror of the Charlottesville footage.
We get in the end what Spike Lee is saying, the joke is folks that this ain’t a joke. But he could have got there with so much more. He has what it takes, thrice over.
Suggestion: go (re)watch Do The Right Thing. And, while you’re at it, see Get Out (2017).
Author: ©Milana Vujkov