With the right white man, we can do anything.
If there has ever been a time for Spike Lee to return revitalized and lay down a truly great film again, a movie of passion and rage like the old days, it’s now. Not that I expected it. I figured Lee’s days of great filmmaking were kind of behind him. But, with this movie, Lee has silenced all the doubters like me with a film of incredible vitality and brilliance. The film is based on a true story and, even without the rather obvious embellishments Lee and company add, it’s still a pretty insane story to be true and the kind of hook that makes a moviemaker really salivate: a black police officer infiltrates the KKK. How do you beat that? The cast is top notch. I’d like to see John David Washington in something else; his affect here is a little flat, but it might be a choice, not a flaw. Laura Harrier is great in support and Adam Driver is reliably terrific. Moving away from the side of the angels, there’s Topher Grace as David Duke; I thought it an odd choice when I first heard about it, but it’s actually brilliant. Duke in this film is a powerful force for racism, but he’s also just kind of a dork and I love that the film demystifies him in that way. Ryan Eggold, an actor I’ve found disappointing in the past, is really good as a local clan leader; his wide-eyed affability is a nice contrast to the awful things he says and does. Jasper Paakkonen, by the way, is absolutely terrifying as the most psychotic Klan member, Felix, and I’d never have guessed that the actor is Finnish either, so astonishingly does he disappear into the American character. It’s really an amazing performance. There’s absolutely real anger behind this movie, even as it does find a lot of absurd humor in the ludicrous premise. Some sections of the film play like a comedy, but when the film digs in, it digs in deep, as in a sequence that crosscuts between a Civil Rights pioneer’s speech and the Klan members watching D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It’s a sequence taut with dread and it only gets more disturbing as it goes. The shoehorning in of an obviously fabricated bombing plot near the end of the film is, in my opinion, kind of a stumble, mostly because it is so transparently fabricated. And a last minute handwave to establish that, “well, actually, MOST cops aren’t racists” is annoying and rings false. But the film regains its footing as Lee decides to just go for it with an ending that is stunning, enraging and utterly shocking. It’s a bravura move from a bold filmmaker and it lands like a ton of bricks. It stirs both anger and sadness in equal measure and if the film hasn’t already established itself as a masterpiece, that ending certainly does. It’s a gripping movie, entertaining, disturbing, not quite perfect, but still absolutely essential viewing and I anticipate it standing the test of time in the way that Lee’s best films have. It has the immediacy of a gutpunch and in some strange way, I think it always will. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Lee returns with a bravura masterpiece that is both timely and timeless; entertaining, infuriating, disturbing and unforgettable, it lands like a ton of bricks. 4 stars.