It’s 1979. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington - yep, son of Denzel) is Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer, and he’s decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Sure, it’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s the basic, true-life, stranger-than-fiction story of Spike Lee’s latest evisceration of modern American race relations in a nutshell. After dealing with hostile co-workers and a black community with an innate (and deserved) distrust of the police, Ron takes matters into his own hands and calls up the number of his local Klan chapter. Handily, they’ve just taken an ad out in the newspaper. He hurls abuse and throws around racial slurs in his very best "white voice" in order to convince them that he, an African-American man with a striking afro, is in fact a hate-filled white supremacist who is also, well... white. And it works.
...if only the same could be said of the film itself.
I have to say up front, I’ve been feeling particularly conflicted on this one. In the weeks since seeing it, I’ve found it annoyingly difficult to parse my thoughts, especially as the waves of positive reviews have been rolling in from both the Cannes Film Festival (where the film won the Grand Prix) and now as well with its recent release in the States. Which isn’t surprising really, as it is built to be a crowdpleaser – or at least, with its subject matter and potent final moments, the enraged modern version of one – but I can’t help but feel that there’s just something that little bit off here. Yes, the story is a fantastic one, thanks in large part to its based-on-truth sheen, as Stallworth goes on to team up with fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, in maybe the film’s best performance) in order to have a visually acceptable version of Ron Stallworth to send along to meetings. But, for all its fiery grandstanding and potent wrestling with the issues we’re facing today, I was struck by how it felt, well... like it somehow wasn’t quite angry enough.
Lee is an inarguably vital filmmaker, whose ‘Do the Right Thing’ is rightly held up as a masterpiece of modern American cinema (and so it should be), but here he has taken on a script that mistakes easy dramatic irony for genuine cinematic tension. The film doles out on-the-nose allusions to re-making America’s "greatness" and winking references to the future inhabitants of the White House, instead of doing things like building character arcs, or paying off the litany of thematic threads set up in the early goings, or giving its central character a single damn thing to do for most of its running time.
And, where in his other films Lee has displayed a masterful knack for tonal control, here there’s no such thing. Of course there are bravura sequences, like the one in which a deeply moving and horrifying speech from an elder (played in a fantastic cameo by Harry Belafonte) wherein he describes the lynching he once witnessed to a group of black students and activists, is crosscut with a rambunctious Klan meeting where its members hoot and holler their way through a screening of D.W. Griffiths’ infamous and hugely damaging ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – the film which directly, if inadvertently, contributed to the re-legitimisation of the KKK back in the early 20th century. Now that's a cinematic masterstroke. But then there are also scenes so shoddily assembled, and entire swathes of the film so lacking in stakes or forward momentum, that it becomes hard to keep giving the film the benefit of the doubt.
We’re living in on-the-nose times. The world is currently on fire, so why not make a film on this subject that not only acknowledges that, but is trying to show that we’ve been on a direct path to this moment for years?
Yes, it winks. Yes, it’s on the nose. But then again, we’re living in on-the-nose times. The world is currently on fire, so why not make a film on this subject that not only acknowledges that, but is trying to show that we’ve been on a direct path to this moment for years - decades - and should have been waking up to it long ago? The film’s shift in its final minutes make a strong, brutal case for this very thing, and are suitably enervating and enraging. And look, maybe a lot of my problems stem from the audience that I saw the film with, who seemed to be predominantly white, older, middle-class, small-‘L’ liberals who were positively guffawing at the hilarious racism on display, and the hysterically easy-to-dismiss bad guys… yeesh. But that doesn’t mean that the film itself is without merit. Sure, it could be argued that Lee’s tonal rollercoaster allowed that to happen and should be chastised, but hey, who’s keeping track of these things.
In any case, I’m going to see this film again, and though it may not sound like it, I think that you should go too. This is arguably one of the most necessary films of 2018, coming as it does exactly twelve months since Charlottesville and the infamously horrific Unite the Right rally. Whether the film itself entirely succeeds or not artistically, we need to make sure that Spike Lee will keep making movies. Even now, he’s still got things to say. And we need to hear them.