Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Spike Lee rolls his best joint in years.


DI­REC­TOR Spike Lee

CAST John David Wash­ing­ton, Adam Driver, Laura Har­rier, To­pher Grace, Jasper Pääkkö­nen, Corey Hawkins

PLOT Rookie cop Ron Stall­worth (Wash­ing­ton), who’s African-amer­i­can, ap­plies to join his lo­cal Ku Klux Klan chap­ter. While a white col­league (Driver) does the face-to-face work, Stall­worth works to ex­pose the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s plans.

THE PREMISE OF Spike Lee’s lat­est — a black man joins the Ku Klux Klan — sounds so un­likely it had to be based on a true story. Taken from the 1970s-set mem­oirs of an un­der­cover po­lice de­tec­tive, this story’s weird­est flour­ishes come from fact and its res­o­nance from current news sto­ries. While 2001’s The Be­liever mined a some­what sim­i­lar story for tragedy, this one is both a hi­lar­i­ous romp and a dev­as­tat­ing in­dict­ment of our own time.

Ron Stall­worth (Wash­ing­ton) is the first African-amer­i­can hired by the Colorado Springs Po­lice De­part­ment. Af­ter a small un­der­cover suc­cess, he im­pul­sively calls the lo­cal Ku Klux Klan and an­nounces he hates all non-white peo­ple and wants to join. When he’s in­vited to meet them in per­son, he per­suades fel­low of­fi­cer Flip Zim­mer­man (Driver) to play his white coun­ter­part.

It’s al­most un­be­liev­able, but Stall­worth re­ally did get on the phone to the Klan’s Grand Wiz­ard David Duke (played here by To­pher Grace). That sort of sheer un­like­li­hood makes for some of the film’s laughs. But there’s creep­ing dread too, with Lee min­ing ten­sion as the duo close in on their tar­gets as sus­pi­cions about them grow. But be­neath the en­ter­tain­ment this is dense so­cial and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary. The Klan are ridicu­lous and their claims to ge­netic su­pe­ri­or­ity laugh­able. But they are also chill­ingly evil, be­cause their ig­no­rance fu­els vi­o­lence; their dull­ness won’t pro­tect their would-be vic­tims.

Lee raises the stakes for Stall­worth by bring­ing to the fore the black ac­tivists of the era, with Laura Har­rier’s fiery, quick-wit­ted Pa­trice elo­quently counter-ar­gu­ing the Klan’s claims by her mere ex­is­tence. Stall­worth is smit­ten. She’s warier, and pre­oc­cu­pied with her cause, but through her (and an un­der­cover mis­sion surveilling Corey Hawkins’ Kwame Ture) he’s ex­posed to ac­tivism for true equal­ity and against co­op­er­a­tion with a racist sys­tem.

It’s caught be­tween ac­tivists and racists that Stall­worth’s un­easy role as po­lice­man is de­vel­oped and his char­ac­ter fleshed out. Stall­worth’s torn be­tween worlds: he likes his fel­low of­fi­cers, and be­lieves in their call­ing, but can­not deny their racism or the suf­fer­ing they cause his fel­low black peo­ple. As the screws tighten on Stall­worth, Wash­ing­ton’s per­for­mance sug­gests that Denzel’s heavy­weight charisma is her­i­ta­ble, with all the same mag­netism but his own wilder en­ergy. Wash­ing­ton Jr is a lit­tle less coolly poised, but he has the same fierce in­tel­li­gence and un­de­ni­able author­ity. That plays nicely against Driver’s Zim­mer­man, too, as the more ex­pe­ri­enced cop finds him­self ex­am­in­ing his own iden­tity as a Jewish Amer­i­can for the first time and ques­tion­ing his ca­sual ac­cep­tance of the way things are. Lee may be a polemi­cist, but he makes room for char­ac­ter nu­ance that gives his films more depth and com­plex­ity than he’s some­times cred­ited with.

Lee keeps the film’s tone see­saw­ing be­tween knock­about ad­ven­ture and deathly se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal polemic, which won’t be to ev­ery­one’s taste. But for the most part, the mo­ments of lev­ity serve to keep the bleak­ness at bay. Evil is among us, hid­den — or not so hid­den — in the hearts of or­di­nary-look­ing peo­ple. As the film’s fi­nal mo­ments make clear, we need a new fight back against it. HE­LEN O’HARA

VER­DICT There are few film­mak­ers as con­sis­tently, burn­ingly pas­sion­ate as Spike Lee. This is vi­tal and timely work that’s up there with his best, with a gut-wrench­ing sting in the tail.

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