Spike Lee’s masterly BlacKkKlansman is a 1970s-set true story which is both a gripping thriller and a scathing critique of Trump’s America, writes Alistair Harkness
BlacKkKlansman (15) *****
The King (15) ***
The Spy Who Dumped Me (15) ****
The Children Act (12A) **
Alpha (12A) **
Spike Lee’s audacious new film BlackKkKlansman kicks off by repurposing one of the most famous scenes from Gone With the Wind to show how the highest grossing film of all time codified and normalised racism. Coming at the start of a film that dramatises the incredible true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1973, Lee’s use of the moment the camera rises up to salute the Confederate flag works as an ironic counterpoint to what is about to unfurl: this is a film that refuses to normalise or codify anything. Instead it calls out all the blatant, strange and downright dangerous ways racism manifests itself, allowing Lee to shrink the distance between the story’s period setting and Donald Trump’s America one year on from Charlottesville.
Which isn’t to say the film is a hectoring slice of agitprop. Lee has always been an agile filmmaker, able to turn his hand to a diverse array of genres and make them politically relevant for the times. His under-appreciated mastery of both satire and drama, as well as his artist’s rule-breaking willingness to smash disparate styles and ideas together to reveal uncomfortable truths, is evident in the way history, politics, even film criticism collide in what is a gripping undercover detective film.
Played by John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son), Stallworth is an ambitious Colorado Springs cop who pushes through the racism of his own force to become its first black detective. Dispatched to monitor subversive activity within the Black Power movement, he’s inspired instead to use his own nascent position of authority to monitor the subversive activity of the KKK after spotting a recruitment ad in his local paper. Filled with what-the-hell insouciance, he calls the listed number and, before long, is being invited along to meetings. With Ron hoodwinking the hood-wearers over the phone, and his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), pretending to be Ron in person, the whole operation plays out like an increasingly dangerous riff on Cyrano de Bergerac as they set about deceiving the KKK’s odious grand wizard, David Duke (a brilliant turn from Topher Grace).
It’s crazy, jaw-dropping stuff and no surprise to learn the film started life as a vehicle for Get Out’s Jordan Peele. But this is also unmistakably a “Spike Lee Joint” and the veteran director brings the full force of his filmmaking knowledge to bear on proceedings, reckoning again and again with the weight of American history and Hollywood’s interpretation of it. In one of the most powerful sequences he crosscuts footage of a riotous KKK screening of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with shots of a veteran civil rights campaigner, played by Harry Belafonte, as he describes the infamous group-lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 – the year after Birth of a Nation’s release inspired a nationwide revival of the Klan. That Griffith also pioneered and popularised the crosscutting technique Lee uses only adds to the layered nature of his critique. But it’s the way Lee’s critical eye works in conjunction with the surreal surface details that makes this so powerful. This is a film that functions like an inverted magic mirror: continually reflecting the true horror and dangerous reality of a world in which distortion and absurdity have become the norm.
Next to BlacKkKlansman, Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The King, can’t help but seem a little scattershot in its own efforts to explore American society through the prism of Elvis Presley. Piling an assortment of well-known fans into the back of Elvis’s Rolls-Royce in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections, Jarecki doesn’t appear to have much confidence in the freewheeling road trip concept. Nevertheless, the finished film does manage to throw up some interesting ideas as various interviewees – Chuck D and David Simon among them – wrestle with notions of cultural appropriation while others reflect on what Elvis’s gluttonous career says about America.
As with The Heat and Spy, action comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me benefits from serving up a female-led spin on the genre. Mila Kunis is the titular dumpee whose ex’s espionage past results in her and her best friend (Kate McKinnon) becoming embroiled in a dangerous conspiracy that necessitates a high-octane chase through Europe. The chemistry of the leads makes or breaks a film like this; luckily Kunis and McKinnon are a blast.
The Children Act is the second Ian McEwan novel this year to be adapted by the author (the other was the dreary On Chesil Beach), so he’s only got himself and, in this case, director Richard Eyre, to blame for how facile and middlebrow it is. As a high court judge unprepared for the consequences of ruling against a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness determined to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion, Emma Thompson does good work. Sadly, she’s let down by Eyre’s stagey direction and the script’s shallow conception of her character as a career woman haunted by her own decision not to have children.
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Cro-Magnon tribal warrior who tames a wolf after being left for dead in the wilderness, Alpha turns what could have been an Apocalypto-style survival epic into a prehistoric boy-and-his-dog story. Rendered with too much ropey CGI, and topped and tailed with theme-explicating voiceover by Morgan Freeman, the results are corny in the extreme. ■