BlacKkKlansman (Grade: B), Spike Lee’s first entry in the Cannes competition lineup since 1991’s Jungle Fever, never outright mentions that it takes place in 1979. We can ballpark the year through context clues, like the ostentatiously dated fashion choices and the opportunity Lee takes to play around with the imagery and attitude of blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Coffy. But a date card never arrives, and no one ever clarifies the exact when aloud, either. That’s probably because BlacKkKlansman isn’t a period piece, not really. The America it depicts—where white cops harass and murder black citizens, where white supremacists complain of their own supposed social disadvantage, where the ideological tendrils of hate groups extend into the political sphere—looks an awful lot like the America of right here and now. And Lee makes the point over and over again through spoken dialogue or unspoken parallels, long before one of his signature film-ending archival montages explicitly hammers it home.
It doesn’t have the volcanic personality and power of Spike’s best work, like his timeless Do The Right Thing, which premiered at Cannes in 1989 and came up at this morning’s post-screening press conference. And it lacks the sheer baptizing outrage of his Bamboozled, one of the most caustically truthful (and underrated) films ever made about how deeply racism has burrowed into the pores of our culture. But BlacKkKlansman, which Lee produced with Jordan Peele and Blumhouse for the same wide-release audience that hungrily devoured Get Out last year, still counts as a rousing comeback for the writer-director: a messy, proudly mainstream, sometimes riotously funny biopic-crowdpleaser about fighting, and clowning on, the dipshit thugs of skinhead America.
Based, as the opening credits announce, on “Some Fo’ Real, Fo Real Shit,” the film has a great hook: the true story of how a black Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, from HBO’s Ballers, who got his start with a bit part in Lee’s last biographical drama, Malcom X), managed to infiltrate a local arm of the Klu Klux Klan, making phone contact with “the organization” and masquerading as an aggrieved kindred spirit in the white-power movement. Of course, pulling off the ruse required meeting with the KKK in person, which meant that Stallworth needed a face to go with the voice on the line, a Christian de Neuvillette to his bigot-whispering Cyrano de Bergerac. He finds him in Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer with his own heritage to conceal from the marks. (“You’re passing,” Stallworth tells him.)
Most undercover cop movies are, in one way or another, about identity. The Departed, for example, turned its dueling-mole premise into a statement about class, about faking your way up or down the social ladder to fit in. BlacKkKlansman turns the espionage games of Stallworth’s scheme into a metaphor for the different masks he has to wear as a black man in America. He gets close to the KKK, including a young David Duke (Topher Grace, whose milquetoast WASPiness counts as a good burn on the one-time Grand Wizard), by presenting himself as a sympathetic ear, flattering their intelligence while exploiting their lack of it, swallowing his anger. But he’s also playing a role for his superiors and colleagues, maneuvering around their often less-overt racism, and for the student activist (Laura Harrier) he courts—a romantic subplot built on its own deception, as Stallworth, a cop trying to change things from the inside of a hostile institution, entertains her down-with-the-pigs philosophy. (Their discussions include some of the movie’s most nuanced ideas.)
As is often the case with Spike’s joints, the storytelling can be uneven. Beyond one corker involving Driver’s Flip attempting to talk his way out of a lie detector test, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t get a whole lot of suspense or urgency out of the subterfuge of Stallworth’s con. Was Lee limited by the details of the true story, which builds to a climax less thrilling than what one might expect? Although he’s made his most narratively entertaining movie in years, the filmmaker often still privileges polemical discourse over drama, grinding things to a halt for minutes-long speeches—he’s not so different from Godard in that way—and sometimes getting rather on-the-nose with the already exceptionally apparent contemporary echoes. (Yes, there’s a play on MAGA and a gag about the country never being stupid enough to elect someone like David Duke to the presidency.)
Still, it’s undeniably exciting to see Lee make something this incensed again, and BlacKkKlansman scores some big laughs at the expense of its villains, tricked and schooled and gloriously insulted by the hero, in telephone conversations—some based on interviews with the real Stallworth—that play like crank calls on white supremacy itself. Lee, who begins the film with an excerpt from Gone With The Wind and includes a scene of the Klansmen hooting and hollering through a screening of Birth Of A Nation, understands the agitprop potential of cinema—its capacity to speak to a wide, captive audience, sympathetic to ideas and hungry for inspiration. With any luck. BlacKkKlansman, flaws and all, will find that audience at the multiplex this year. We need its anger right now.
Earlier in the festival, I noted rumors that Cannes had switched up its strategy for the main competition, selecting films more for their overall quality than for the reputation of their makers. (Hence the relative lack of major auteurs.) With the festival more than half over, I’m about ready to call myself convinced. This year’s slate of contenders has been rock-solid, with only a couple of turkeys. Of course, I’ve managed to miss one of the most acclaimed of the bunch: Shoplifters, the new presumably gentle drama from Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking). And since I’m leaving Friday, I’ll miss a few more, including the latest from Turkish Cannes royalty Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Even discounting a potential missed masterpiece, though, the programmers did well in 2018.
I was mostly charmed by Happy As Lazzaro (Grade: B), from writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, who won a prize at Cannes four years ago for The Wonders. For a while, her new one plays a bit like a meandering descendant of the Italian (and Palme-friendly) peasant epics of the 1970s, focusing as it does on the entwined livelihoods of two families living in a small, remote village—one the dynasty of a powerful cigarette baroness, the other impoverished sharecroppers working for her. This dynamic is encapsulated by the exploitative relationship that develops between spoiled scion Tancredi (Italian pop star Luca Chikovani) and endlessly accommodating peasant Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo). The former ensnares the latter in a plot to bilk his rich mother out of some phony ransom money, and you think you have a handle on where the film is (slowly) going. But Rohrwacher has some unexpected reveals up her sleeve, including a rather delightful fissure in the movie’s carefully established neorealism and milieu. Though gently outraged in its portrait of class divisions, Happy As Lazzaro mostly takes its tonal cues from the eponymous character’s comically gentle, trusting nature. Tardiolo’s performance flirts with parody—he’s the living embodiment of the “simple” virtue of the working class, that cliché about inherent salt-of-the-earth goodness—but the movie mostly believes in his sweet integrity. Touchingly, if maybe to a fault.
Deceptively slight in its own way, the lovely Asako I & II (Grade: B+) rounded out my day of good movies with the best intentions. I know Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s last film, Happy Hour, only by reputation—which is to say, I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it offers over five hours of gentle naturalism. That makes his only-two-hour encore, which scored a surprise competition slot, slender by comparison. Shy, uncertain Asako (Erika Karata) moves from Osaka to Tokyo, two years after her aloof stud of a boyfriend (Masahiro Higashide) mysteriously skips town, dropping out of her life without a trace. Here, she encounters the spitting image of her MIA beau (also Higashide), and tiptoes into a relationship with this sweeter, goofier fellow—mostly, it would seem, because of the uncanny resemblance.
Hamaguchi exhibits a careful, un-showy command of the frame, and a talent for creating small, sometimes comic surprises through editing. (One scene, for example, depicts Asako and her first love canoodling in the street after a motorcycle wipeout, only to cut to a wider shot of onlookers standing nearby, trying to survey the damage.) Gently and leisurely, he charts the mundane rhythms of the romance, to the point where a viewer might wonder where the movie could possibly be going, if anywhere. (Is this a secret cousin to last year’s perverse Cannes black sheep The Double Lover?) Gradually, though, the shape of the narrative comes together, and all that mellow downtime reveals its purpose. At heart, this is a film about looking for the past in the present, and about how hard it can be to shake that impulse; there may be two men in Asako’s little black book, but as the title indicates, there are really two of her as well. Asako I & II ultimately works as a mellow date movie with some big insights about relationships—accessible and artful, a combination that should be more common, honestly. It was also a prelude of niceness before the very nasty film I saw half a day later, and which I’ll write about…
…Tomorrow: Lars von Trier returns to a standing ovation, followed by mass walkouts. Is his latest provocation as shocking as you’ve heard? Is there method to its madness? Stay tuned for more on The House That Jack Built, plus one of my most anticipated films of the festival: It Follows director David Robert Mitchell’s reportedly strange L.A. noir, Under The Silver Lake.