Beyond just a return to form, Lee takes the mainstream buddy cop genre and reconfigures it for the zeitgeist.
Spike Lee has been making a comeback in recent years. Not that the iconic filmmaker has necessarily been away, having done plenty of independent films in the intervening periods when critics couldn’t quite make heads or tails of his work. Lee definitely doesn’t limit himself. Some years – 2008 and 2012, to be exact – Lee even released not just one but two movies, proving that he’s always got something to say.
Eventually came Chi-Raq, Lee’s modern take on the play Lysistrata, which was newsworthy not just for being a new Spike Lee joint but his first feature since Inside Man that critics actually loved. Chi-Raq can feel cobbled together thanks to the many liberties that Lee takes with the movie’s form, and its throughline of satire can be more reductive rather than illuminating, especially with regards to women’s agency and ownership over their bodies. However, what truly holds the movie together is its passion and urgency. Even as an uneven and incomplete experiment, Lee retains the ability to keep a conversation going.
Three years later, Lee finally delivers his follow-up narrative feature, BlacKkKlansman, a film teeming with potential in a similarly confronting and furious way. However, it definitely doesn’t feel as inaccessibly experimental. Watch the trailer below and you’ll find what looks to be a buddy cop comedy that just happens to have a very serious message.
BlacKkKlansman stars John David Washington (Ballers) and Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) who are clearly brimming with subtle charisma from what little footage is available so far. Based on a true story, the film chronicles how African American detective Ron Stallworth (Washington) and his partner Flip Zimmerman (Driver) managed to infiltrate the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan
The trailer packs in everything we love about quintessential Lee joints: sharp humor and biting wit meshing within a very timely premise. It serves as proof that the film’s depressing subject matter could even be translated from page to screen in such a comical way.
In fact, initial reports of Lee’s adaptation of Stallworth’s book classified the eventuating movie to be a thriller. That was likely due to the fact that Jordan Peele of Get Out fame serves as a producer on the film. Considering the weighty and offensive nature of the Ku Klux Klan as an entity, a thriller would have been a predictably fitting genre choice for a movie about infiltrating the group.
Instead, we get a trailer that feels about as mainstream as 21 Jump Street, except way more people are donning white hoods, and that’s how the movie shocked CinemaCon when it previewed there a month ago. But despite its irreverence of serious biopic conventions, beneath this suspiciously cheery KKK movie is an obvious tension that would have still been present even if the film had been far less pointed and over-the-top.
In all his experiments, Lee has proven himself to be a multilayered director, whether he’s working with satire or not. When examining gems such as Do the Right Thing and even Malcolm X, the deliberate nature of his directorial choices reveals itself. His movies aren’t always subtle in their imagery, but that doesn’t have to be a critique, because they are engaging and enlightening due to the confronting inevitability of his narratives.
The bright color palettes of Do the Right Thing don’t detract from the swelling heat wave that implies a later explosion in the film’s Brooklyn community; they, in fact, contribute to that experience. Malcolm X is unrelentingly detailed in its portrayal of a controversial figure’s backstory, purposely demystifying a man. In encouraging the audience’s empathy for him, Lee perpetuates a greater understanding of his causes.
So even amidst its weirdly bubbly mainstream aesthetic, BlacKkKlansman will ask some tough but vital questions, and we will relish in that juxtaposition. Everything from its impeccable production — sets, costumes, and cinematography — already informs us of a recognizably hilarious yet impactful stamp that Lee’s best work has always sported.
Of course, it absolutely helps that word from Cannes says that BlacKkKlansman is fantastic too — the film even drew a 10-minute ovation at the prestigious film festival. However, from the trailer alone, Lee looks to be back on form. Now we really can’t wait for his Nightwatch movie.
BlacKkKlansman hits theaters on August 10th.