That’s the sound of Spike Lee returning with a bang.
Lee’s work has been lean pickings for me since his heyday in the late 80’s and early 90’s with movies like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It.
But the rest of his cannon (maybe through ignorance on my part) has failed to engage me.
But this almost nails it.
My one overall criticism is that, at times, I’m not sure if Lee wants to make a comedy or a searingly monstrous docu-drama.
For me the hate he brings to the screen out punches the comedy 10:1.
Two characters in the movie should have been booted into touch: both are lampoons and detract from what is otherwise a great whole. These are the hate-filled racist local cop (Officer Clay Mulaney) and the KKK sidekick Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser – hilarious in a similar slapstick role in I Tonya, but misplaced here).
They are minor distractions but become grit in your eye, detracting from the overall menace and subtle humour surrounding a subject that is far from humorous.
What Lee does with this is face up, full on, to the endemic prejudice that fuels the police force and the local white population in small town Colorado.
He creates a sense of time and place that is authentic and cool man. As you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint the black cast are dealt most of the best hands, but Adam Driver (as a Jewish cop – only one step removed from being black in this chapter of the KKK’s eyes) performs an excellent supporting role as the white man who infiltrates the KKK on behalf of his black colleague (John David Washington).
You’ll know the plot constuct by now so I won’t bore you with that.
What makes it a great movie is the sense of time, place and politics, the soundtrack and the unflinching ability of Lee to capture the racist poison that is encapsulated in the performance of Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix Kendrikson; by far the most committed and cynical of the Klansmen. And yet it is underpinned by nice comedic moments (other than the slapstick I described earlier).
There’s a scene in which the Chapter watch a screening of Birth of a Nation where, although underpinned by some humour, that hatred really does come across compellingly. It’s chilling.
It’s a great (true) story that is extremely well told.
At times the cinematography is truly outstanding – in particular the scene in which a visiting black political speaker (Kwame Toure, played by Corey Hawkins) addresses the local black student population. Lee creates a montage of faces from the crowd that echoes Queen’s seminal Bohemian Rhapsody video but so stylistically and handsomely that it’s art on screen for just a few fleeting moments.
It’s seared on my mind.