Saturday, June 15, 2024

UPDATED REVIEW Cannes: Massive Cheers for Spike Lee Film Attack on Trump, Racism in Film Ties 70s to Charlottesville


Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman” just premiered in Cannes. It’s his most controversial film yet, brilliant in its telling of a true story from the 70s and connecting it to Trump and Charlottesville. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, “Blackkklansman” is Lee’s best movie also.

It will be his most incendiary as well. What Lee has done here is make a movie of a book, a memoir from the early 70s by a black cop in Colorado Springs, Colorado who infiltrated the KKK in a kind of Cyrano way– he used a white cop to meet with the hooded white supremacists but he, Ron Stallworth, spoke to them by phone and convinced them of his hatred for blacks and Jews.

Stallworth is played by Denzel and Pauletta Washington’s son, John David, an already accomplished actor who has a breakthrough moment here. JDW is absolutely terrific as Stallworth and so is his partner, Flip Zimmerman, played here by Adam Driver. The rest of the cast is perfect throughout including Laura Harrier as a young black activist a la Angela Davis, Topher Grace as David Duke — then the grand wizard of the KKK– Nicholas Turturro, Corey Hawkins, et al.

But let’s jump to the chase. Spike Lee made this book into a movie to show that racism, anti-Semitism, all existed as it does today the same way it did 40 years ago. Stallworth is described as the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs PD. There are racist cops on the staff, and Stallworth has plenty of trouble inside and outside work.

Lee shot the movie before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. It was done. Perhaps it ended with a shot of JDW and Harrier going into the future together with a signature Spike Lee “glide.” That would have been a good movie. But now the “glide” segues into footage from Charlottesville. The movie gains a “Schindler’s List” moment as Lee flashes forward to racism in our time. (“SL” ended with real life Holocaust victims and their families paying their respects to Oskar Schindler decades later.)

The juxtaposition of this new reality– that we’ve elected a president who didn’t denounce hatred but embraced it, that that president is supported by David Duke, who’s still around and fomenting that hate– notches “Blackkklansman” to new level. Now we have a movie of staggering social significance. That Lee even thought of it and connected all the dots shows  great filmmaker who’s been with us for three decades, bringing a masterwork to life.

PS The music is great, too. Early in the film, there’s a scene in a bar or disco of everyone singing the Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” It reminded me of “School Daze,” Lee’s musical, and “Crooklyn.” The choice of song is apt and  on purpose– for Stallworth, dedicated to taking down the KKK, it is indeed too late to turn  back.  It’s a beautiful moment that sets the whole movie up.

Is this an Oscar contender? Certainly a Best Picture nominee, Best Director, screenplay and multiple acting noms will be coming its way. Denzel Washington should be proud– his kid is a keeper.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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