BlacKkKlansman review: Spike Lee returns to Cannes with this urgent, funny, though ultimately hard-hitting story of a young, black police officer who goes undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado.

BlacKkKlansman review by Paul Heath.

BlacKkKlansman review
BlacKkKlansman review

It’s safe to say that Spike Lee films, or ‘joints’ as we know them, have been a bit hit and miss over the years. Just a couple of year’s ago he hit us with his street music Chi-Raq. You’d possibly have to go back a full twelve years to find his last acclaimed turn – the Clive Owen crime movie Inside Man – and then all of the way back to 2002’s 25th Hour before that. With a staggering 80 credits to his name, he’s certainly prolific, but he’s far from the glory days of his early career with hits and acclaimed modern classics like Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. BlacKkKlansman is possibly his most important and urgent film since then, the director teaming with Blumhouse and Jordan Peele for a black comedy set in the 1970s amongst the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.

Lee managed to bring the house down on its first screening here in Cannes – a film packing out the two biggest theatres in town, press in one and the premiere taking place in the larger Palais next door. His trump card is a cameoing Alec Baldwin, hamming it up on-screen as a laughable white supremist, plastered across the frame, spliced in just prior to the opening credits.

Related: Chi-Raq review

John David Washington, possibly most known for his role as Ricky Jerret on HBO’s Ballers, which is now in its third season on the cabler, as well as being the son of one Denzel Washington, plays the lead role of Ron Stallworth, a rookie detective on the Colorado Springs police force. He’s stuck in the Records Department pulling out sheets on so-called ‘Toads’ for other officers but sees a way out by volunteering to go undercover at a local Black Power meeting, where he meets local activist and future love-interest Patrice (Laura Harrier). His task sees him humiliated but, keen to press forward after being surprisingly motivated at the rally (led by a cameoing Corey Hawkins), he decides to call the local chapter of the hate ‘organisation,’ the Ku Klux Clan. After unwillingly spilling his real name, his police chiefs decide to use the mistake to their advantage, and send him undercover to expose the KKK, along with the help of Adam Driver’s Jewish officer Flip. With Ron doing the telephone work and Flip appearing in person with the members of the organisation when needed, the two starts to work their way into the upper echelons of the clan, all the way to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).

Lee and his fellow writers have layered a screenplay full of dark humour, the feature constantly bringing smiles and even laugh out loud moments. A lot of it comes from Washington’s strong character and talent for comedic timing, helped with the witty one-liners his character is given throughout proceedings. Alongside him is his straight man in the form of Driver’s Flip, the police officer who must attempt to match Ron’s voice when coming into the KKK in physical form. The two make a great pair, and we’d pay good money to see this police duo in their own TV spin-off – they’re an absolute joy to watch in every scene.

The crew of the KKK are made up of cartoon-like characters, all very well pulled off by the ensemble that inhabit them. Their hatred is so utterly laughable, Lee allowing himself to have fun with the absurdity of their far-right extremism which, when matched with Washington’s retorts, make excellent viewing despite the dark underlying subject matter. The seriousness of it all is  brought to a head during a skilfully constructed sequence in the final reel, Lee bringing in Harry Belafonte to play a bried role that brings home the true horror that lurks beneath the more light-hearted tone that runs throughout.

If that wasn’t enough, the final sequence will stop you cold – the story related to events from the past 12 months. It will make you angry and upset with frank immediacy. It reduced the Cannes crowd to absolute silence, a major compliment to the filmmaking and the message it drives home.

Put simply, this is Spike Lee’s best joint for years. Washington is the clear stand-out in a breakthrough performance, and a star will be instantly made of the young gifted actor. Lee himself is a shoe-in for awards for his directing efforts, and rightly so. This is truly magnificent, urgent stuff.

BlacKkKlansman review by Paul Heath, May 2018.

BlacKkKlansman review is released in the UK on August 24th. It was reviewed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.