FIGHT THE WHITE POWER
But before he gets to that, Lee has Stallworth’s story to tell. As played by John David Washington (son of Denzel), the cop who exposed the leadership of the KKK is a preternaturally cocksure young man who struts his way into the police department with the swagger of the young and brave and formidably Afro’d. “I heard you think you’re hot shit but you ain’t nothin’ but a cold fart,” a fellow officer informs him. He’s wrong: Stallworth is hot shit, a reallife John Shaft, with the hair and medallion and jive talk to match.
Assigned first to observe a meeting of college activists at which the father of the Black Power movement, Kwame Ture— formerly Stokely Carmichael—delivers a barnstorming speech, Stallworth quickly begins a courtship with the activists’ leader, the beautiful Patrice, played by Laura Harrier. She’s one of several strong supporting players, not the least of whom is Adam Driver, an actor whose presence can tilt even a conventional film off its casters and send it careening in unexpected directions. (See: Star Wars, and the creepy soulfulness of his Kylo Ren.) So here, amidst the maelstrom of Lee’s crackpot comedy-drama, the stage is set for him. Driver is Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish policeman forced into uncomfortably close contact with the Klan. His moments of off-the-cuff racist extemporising, like Washington’s, are some of the film’s best: first funny, then discomfiting, then horrifying.
And perhaps that’s a fair summary of the film’s effect. Early on, there are moments of purely enjoyable movie-making, like a night of dancing, when Lee’s familiar exuberance is at its best. There’s the gorgeous cinematography of Chayse Irvin, who made Beyoncé’s Lemonade videos, and the groovy score by Terence Blanchard, who’s been working with Lee for three decades, since School Daze. But the mood darkens as the story’s relevance to present day America is made explicit. A world where racist cops brutalise innocent citizens because of the colour of their skin. Where white supremacists march down Main Street USA. As you might expect, the director pulls no punches. And, of course, the footage from Charlottesville is powerful and upsetting—and damning.
Lee has had to endure much disobliging comment in recent years, and it’s true that the quality of his later work has been patchy. But at particularly febrile moments in America’s—incredibly— deepening race relations crisis, from the blazing early films (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) to When the Levees Broke, his magnificent 2007 documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, his has often been among the most essential voices in American culture. Here is Lee’s response. You dig?