Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace. Directed by Spike Lee.
DIS SOME FO’ SHO’, FO’ REAL SH*T is the tagline and opening scribe to this latest joint by auteur filmmaker Spike Lee. And while it may be fo’ sho’ some real shit, it’s absolutely a Spike Lee joint.
Spike Lee has turned history into a 70s style buddy-cop comic drama thriller, telling the true story of Colorado Springs’ first Black Police Officer Ron Stallworth, who, keen to cut his teeth in the police, convinces everyone to allow him to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. How does he do it? With the aid of conflicted Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman.
From the off, it’s important to note that Spike Lee is a contradictory, difficult and sometimes controversial director. When he’s good, he’s good: She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Inside Man. When he’s bad: he’s Jungle Fever, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Bamboozled. It should be noted that this is his most enjoyable film since Inside Man, his most important since Malcolm X and his most incendiary since Do The Right Thing.
Lee co-writes and directs like he still has the fire he had all those years ago. As a filmmaker in the current climate, it could be easy for Lee to contently go off and make some middle of the road films, but if he is to fight battles, he’s stubborn enough and bold enough to fight battles for films he knows need to be made. He fought to get Malcolm X, and now some twenty years later he is standing tall alongside one of his best works.
Taking 70s genres and mixing it with history makes sense, perhaps in the wake of Detroit or 12 Years a Slave there’s not the market for hard-hitting dramas about the oppression of the African American people – perhaps, but if producer Jordan Peele has shown us anything, it’s that there is a market for genre mash-ups with a message; his Oscar-winning horror-thriller Get Out blended socio-political comments with big scares and belly laughs, earning major critical and commercial acclaim.
John David Washington (son of Denzel, and frequent collaborating partner of Lee) and Adam Driver, both do some great work as the two cops going undercover to infiltrate hate and bust the KKK. Washington has that deep resonant voice of his father, if not the ease on screen, but what he does have is a face the camera finds intriguing. His looks of joy or sorrow or thought convey a person within the belly of the beast and yet also trying to rediscover his identity. While Driver has a similar arc as someone rediscovering their faith. Driver is a man known for doing very little and doing it well, which works for a character trying to play a role. Two people become one person and the film relishes this Lethal Weapon style conceit.
Meanwhile the rest of the cast are very well placed, bigger names and reliable character actors like Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Laura Harrier and Topher Grace hold their own, and both come out as better actors while seasoned pros like the legendary Harry Belafonte and Alec Baldwin both have a scene each in which they show what they can do. Baldwin nabs some laughs in a performance that does call to mind his Donald Trump performance, while Belafonte has one scene that simply anchors the whole film reminding us that no matter how silly things appear, no matter how bizarre things get, there is a serious and rather dangerous story at its core.
What Lee has managed do more than anything is work out a kink of his earlier career; he’s actually surprisingly balanced. It was the case, years ago, that Lee’s work could come off as having an overpowering focus on negatively portraying white people. Here there are layers to the Caucasian and African American characters. It’s not that Robert John Burke’s captain hates Stallworth, he appears to have a hatred for everyone, or rather being the chief has hardened him and he wants results. Similarly, there is a glimmer of humanity to the likes of Ryan Eggold’s Klan-head in Colorado Springs.
There are some false steps in the film, for all his brilliance and style, Lee falls back on a few tropes that needn’t be in the film. For one the use of puns about the future and the Trump era are a little on the nose, Stallworth claiming no one would elect someone like David Duke to office has the feel of a The Office-style look into the camera moment, and Isiah Whitlock Jr’s cameo is undone by his trotting out of his trade-mark “sheeeeeeeeit”.
But even so, the choice to make this a thriller with comic elements works because there is something unbelievably funny about the KKK, they’re a bunch of pathetic, idiotic racists running around in capes and hoods whose leader calls himself a Grand Wizard. Not only this but brilliantly returns to his burning hatred of classic film Birth of a Nation (a gripe that almost got him thrown out of film school).
The film ends in a very pointed fashion with footage of current events, things that will shock, horrify and upset, but should. You may want to look away when you see video images of people being run over for asking to be respected, for people shouting no to Jews, to images of people screaming of dead bodies and for the big fat racist buffoon in the white house calling protestors violent and excusing the actions of racist thugs. But you shouldn’t. Lee is making a point, a point he made at the end of Do The Right Thing with those contradictory quotes from MLK and Malcolm X, with that image of the two men shaking hands.
Things aren’t changing, things are staying the same and frankly, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele and most of the open-minded not-racist world have had enough. This is the Get Out of this year, Spike Lee’s best work in well over a decade and it’ll take some mighty works of art to keep this from the end of the year top ten – now that is some fo’ sho’ fo’ real shit.
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Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.