Spike Lee pulls a clever, probing trick in his new film, BlacKkKlansman, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday. Much of the film is played as a comedy, courting amusement with the absurdity of its based-on-a-true-story premise. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs who infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone, using a fellow officer (Adam Driver) as his stand-in at in-person meetings.
Its an odd lark watching Stallworth pull one over on these monstrous buffoons, and Lee stages the con with a bouncy, irreverent patter. Washington gives Stallworth an arch swagger, his hair high in a glorious Afro, clad in hip threads. Its perhaps a surprising tone for a movie about race in America to strike at this particular time, and though the laughs are full, theyre also uncomfortable.
As the film follows the familiar beats of an undercover-sting picture, we sense a righteous triumph on its way; Stallworth is sure to nail these slur-hurling simpletons and rid his city of some dangerous agitators. We also suspect hell wind up happy with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a local college-student activist who is styled like Angela Davis and constantly auditing Stallworths commitment to the cause. The story ought to have a tidy, satisfying conclusion, one that makes us feel comforted by a past victory and sure that the current crop of white supremacists making noise will be shamed and laughed into history in the same way.
Lee delivers on all that promise. The racists are soothingly smarmy and witless (Topher Grace plays a dorky David Duke), their awful language turning them into the garish cartoons were sure they were. BlacKkKlansman is a neat little movie, goofy at times but always on the right side of things, reducing the enemy to combatable anachronisms.
But gradually, Lee also reveals the sad joke of the movie—and the truth of it, too. How eager so many of us are to be served narratives like this, in which insidiousness isnt so pervasive after all, in which the racists and other bigots are discrete, easily identified, and isolated. According to a flat reading of BlacKkKlansman, the KKK is a thing of the past, and whatever this new stuff is—the far right or whatever you want to call it—will soon be, too. Which, I think, is Lees point.
BlacKkKlansmans joke is an indictment of complacency, particularly that of white liberals whod rather not confront the distressing fact that not much has changed in 40 years, beyond a re-styling of old, old ideology. At times, Lee is direct in this messaging; a pair of familiar Trump slogans are slyly worked into the script. But theres a grander and subtler commentary being made too, one that almost goes unnoticed, or at least unconfirmed, until the films final montage. The movies satire ultimately proves damningly meta, with Lee practically appearing on camera and saying, “Did you really think it would be this easy?”
At least, I think thats whats happening in the film, a wry provocation that sacrifices its interior heft to urge at something bigger and realer. Inferring a filmmakers layers of intent is a risky thing to do, but Lee gives us clues, from the comically slimy villains to composer Terence Blanchards lush retro score. Lee uses Blaxploitation motifs playfully but with purpose, honoring an era of discourse and activism while urging for the necessity of a similar film language now. If we are not keen to the past, were likely to find ourselves mired in its ills again. We already are, of course.
BlacKkKlansman isnt all comedy. Harry Belafonte appears in one haunting sequence as an elder activist recalling a lynching he witnessed in 1916. And the film isnt solely a scolding of white complacency and complicity, either; its also a look at debate within the black community, particularly about the police. For a movie that plays, on its face, as something so simply digested, a further mulling reveals an invigorating jumble of ideas and moods.
Which is a hallmark of Lees filmmaking at its best, how his exuberant need to communicate, lecture, and prod births films erratic in tone but powerful in their clamor and strong sense of purpose. BlacKkKlansman is a less direct work than, say, Do the Right Thing, but probably necessarily so. This film speaks to a different era, one so lost in its cloud of social-media babble and skewed realities that maybe hard, undermining satire like this is best equipped to address it. In his final-frames pivot from archness to poignant, rattling earnestness, Lee re-asserts himself once again as a vital, complex voice in cinema. Which is just the kind of thing we come to Cannes to contend with.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Cannes Film Festival 2018: The Must-See LooksRichard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.