Far from ignoring American race relations, Hollywood filmmakers have been in the thick of it for decades. The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, most recently depicted in LBJ, was accompanied by such classics of the liberal conscience as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). The latter two starred Sidney Poitier, one of the biggest box office attractions of the time. As a director, his comedy Stir Crazy (1980) remains the top-grossing hit of all time for an African-American director. Seldom a year goes by when a mainstream Hollywood film doesn’t have a racial theme in a variety of genres.
For a period in the 1970s, a string of “blaxploitation” films featured mainly black casts in thrillers, westerns, horror and war stories. They were aimed at a specific audience but found widespread appeal.
In the 1980s, these evolved into a more radical approach that reflected frustration with the lack of social progress in race issues. Mississippi Burning (1988) exposed attitudes that showed little indication of change.
About this time, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989) sparked a new wave of creativity that led to three of the most-praised films in the past couple of years: Get Out, Moonlight and Black Panther.
Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman (Universal), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year, is typically exaggerated in its treatment of non-black characters.
While he wants to pack a punch, up to now his recent films have failed to click with audiences.
The difference is that rather than fight the system, Lee has taken the familiar police “buddy” formula and turned it to his own purposes.
The story is based on a real cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), who in the early 1970s was the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Stallworth goes undercover to investigate potential threats to peace, which at that time included civil rights activists and their white supremacist counterparts.
But before this unfolds, Lee applies some of his trademark scene-setters, such as the panorama of wounded soldiers in Gone With the Wind and pseudo-documentary footage of a white racist rant (Alec Baldwin) that also features in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
There’s nothing subtle in this as Griffith’s reputation as a pioneer of the cinema, like his Soviet counterparts, is forever sullied by his propagandist content.
The plot takes off when Stallworth contacts the local Ku Klux Klan, which is advertising for members.
This requires a face-to-face meeting, so a “buddy” cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), becomes a stand-in.
He has a Jewish background but passes muster with the Klan, who are mainly klutzes. Stallworth then makes contact by telephone with the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Their conversations reach such a level of familiarity that Duke is persuaded to visit Colorado Springs from his Louisiana base. This provides the climax, though not the end of the film. Lee adds footage from the race riots in Charlottesville last August, including an
appearance from Duke himself, who has failed in most attempts to seek public office.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 13. 135 minutes