Grand Prix of the last Cannes Film Festival 2018, BlacKkKlansman signs the return of Spike Lee to business. Once is not customary, the director delivers a resolutely committed work.
At 61, Spike Lee is more than ever animated by his activism in favor of the African-American cause. A subject that has crossed a large part of his work, whose climax was reached with Malcolm X , a long-running film retracing the history of the famous American preacher. A powerful work, carried by a Denzel Washington at the top, which overshadowed the rest of his own politicized production. His sometimes violent positions, especially in the face of the treatment of the identity question by other directors, leave no doubt: Lee is not a filmmaker of compromise.
It is therefore not surprising to find him behind BlacKkKlansman , a feature film based on real events, which tells the incredible story of a successful infiltration into the heart of white supremacism.
In the heart of the 1970s, when the civil rights struggle rages on, Ron Stallworth becomes the first black American officer in the Colorado Springs police force. An arrival that does not please all his colleagues. He will quickly look into the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, and try to infiltrate the racist group to denounce its abuses. He will have to team up with Flip Zimmermann, who will become his “white” (and Jewish) understudy as he conducts the operation over the phone. They will understand that an attack is brewing.
This pitch that one would believe dreamed by the director of Do the Right Thing allows him to reconnect with a humor that had gradually faded from his activist work. He also has the good idea to bring together a homogeneous cast, without a big figure (comic in particular) crushing the rest. The nonchalance of John David Washington, son of Denzel spotted in the Ballers series on HBO, goes well with the tongue-in-cheek aspect of Adam Driver, decidedly on all fronts. They are rather well supported by Topher Grace, who has grasped the arrogance of the character he plays (David Duke).
The feature film oscillates between comedy and brulot, but does not always manage to find a real balance. The more skilful first part of the film describes the police institution as a problem and a solution to the crisis that is going through the United States. The profession is partly plagued by ordinary racism, but it can also become an egalitarian springboard for those who appropriate its codes.
Used as an undercover agent, Ron blends in with the crowd of African-American students and empathizes with those he oversees. Lee strongly insists on this double identity, and constantly opposes the faces of black and white leaders, dress styles, verbal expressions. Real notes of humor emerge from this duality. We must thus hear David Duke persuading himself that he detects the “black talk” while he converses with Ron.
Lee also weaves a reflection on the evocative power of cinema, and its impact on the vision of African Americans by society. To Birth of a Nation (1915) , a huge theatrical success that sparked the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, he opposes his love of Blacksploitation . A genre that deliberately played with the stereotypes of the community before losing its strength in the late 1970s.
The old reels showing the dead of the Civil War, a crux of the friction that tears the country to this day, give way to a funky aesthetic that Lee delights in. This humorous game around the medium represents one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
The second part is more agreed. The tension surrounding the infiltration is maintained (although all members of the Klan are presented as deep morons), but the attempt at romance between the new cop and an activist does not work. As frightened that his message does not get through, Lee strongly insists on the current resurgence of racism in the United States. Using some of the Republican vocabulary of decades past, he attacks Donald Trump directly by pitting Klan members side by side with members of the Charlottesville ultra-right, who supported his candidacy.
This booster shot with a lot of stock shots of the JT infuses a documentary and wild aspect to the whole, but reduces its cinematic scope. Where Jordan Peele, here co-producer, had displayed a treasure of ingenuity in Get Out and Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017) still resonates in people’s heads, Lee’s charge may seem more Manichean and global. Despite everything, it remains a real indicator that the problem persists in Uncle Sam’s country. But this time, Lee also wanted to laugh.