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BlacKkKlansman

Year: 2018
Production Co: 40 Acres and a Mule
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Jason Blum/Spike Lee
Writer: Charlie Wachtel/David Rabinowitz/Kevin Willmott/Spike Lee
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin, Isiah Whitlock Jr

Like Black Panther, Captain Marvel or any other movie that celebrates diversity, the only thing I can attribute the overwhelmingly positive critical response to this movie to is that it appealed to the politics most cineastes have in common.

There's a surreal motif involving the lead characters right at the end that leads to footage from the notorious Charlottesville rally which ended in bloodshed and violence in 2017 (including the sickening car ramming attack), and its inclusion by Lee seems clear. The racism the lead characters fought in the 1970s has gone nowhere (and likewise, as scenes from The Birth of a Nation appearing elsewhere in the movie seems to assert, racism in America has a deep historical basis).

As always, he's a filmmaker with a point of view and something to say, which is never a bad thing. But a bit like the longstanding consensus around Woody Allen, some of Lee's film are brilliant (Chi-raq, Bamboozled), some of them are far less so, and this one is awful.

The story, based on true events, is about the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Ron (John David Washington), and his attempt to infiltrate and take down the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. When he calls them on a whim and gets into the good graces of the local recruiter, the possibility of his attending meetings raises a problem in that he's black. So he and his partner Flip (Adam Driver) concoct a scheme where the latter will attend the meetings posing as Ron and wearing a wire, which seems simple enough except that as a Jew, Flip is their natural enemy too.

Led by Ron over the radio according to the conversations he's had with his new buddies and eventually the soft spoken national director (Topher Grace), Flip has to get by on bluster and bravado, especially with the less trusting of his new friends, and when they reveal a plot to bomb a local civil rights rally, the efforts of Ron and Flip's secretive labours bears fruit.

The first problem I had with it is the conceit. I'd be very interested to learn which aspects of the story are true, because I have a very hard time buying the idea that a cop can be sitting around reading the paper, see an ad from a local club recruiting for members and convince any police department to spend time and resources like going undercover to investigate them.

Form a moral point of view it was obviously the right course of action because these particular racist rednecks were planning an illegal and violent act. But that means Ron, Flip and their superiors were either lucky that a hunch based on a newspaper ad led to the solving of a crime, or the assumption of the film is that all these collections of beer swilling morons across America are all sophisticated enough to be planning violence and murder. I mean, it's not my place to say they aren't – I don't know the history of this sort of stuff as much as someone as learned as Lee or his co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott obviously do about it.

But from a legal and procedural point of view, how many criminal investigations in policing do you know go on for so long and consume so many manhours on the basis of someone reading an ad in the paper and there being no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, just racism and stupidity?

That might have been okay in itself, but the second problem reminded me of the turgid tonal mess of George Clooney bomb Monuments Men, which I couldn't even finish. As all the critics said about that movie, the horrors of war and the thigh slapping crime caper elements of the movie sat very uncomfortably together. Here it was the same, the (middling) laughs reminding me of what a problem racism still is in the world – and particular America – because of the way their political ethos allows for it to proliferate, and the horrors of its expression in society (particularly during the news footage ending) making you feel slightly guilty for wanting to laugh at and be entertained by it.

As always, Lee can't help but leave his main story to proselytise, and it only works when he does it with enough subtlety like he does here, with the soft focus and fade transitions between adoring black faces in the crowd as civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speaks. For a more jarring example, see Ed Norton's fourth wall-breaking rant about social corruption in 25th Hour.

But at least that subplot introduces an interesting character in the civil rights student Patrice (Laura Harrier) in whom Ron takes a romantic interest and who's as feisty and human as she is beautiful and intelligent.

It all ends with a couple of jammed-in set pieces of Ron, Flip and their colleagues getting revenge on the idiots and rednecks they've been surrounded by that are as procedural as knocking down bowling pins, and then he and Patrice are floating down a dark hallway towards a window that shows a burning cross outside, and from that dreamscape we're propelled into the nightmare vision of some white loser plowing his car into the crowds of a protest in Charlottesville. It will all leave you reeling, wondering what you've just watched, and not in a good way.

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