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Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Premiere: Inside One Black Critic’s Proud Battle to Land on the Red Carpet

It was Jacqueline Coley's first Cannes, and she was determined to reach the Palais by any means necessary.

Jacqueline Coley, before she hit the red carpet for “BlacKkKlansman.”

Donald Glover grabbed a glass and squeezed by me, bobbing his head to “This Is How We Do It” along the way. I’d been repeating to myself, “This is NOT normal, don’t forget to take it all in” — Cannes is, in fact, light-years from normal — and in that instant, Young Lando/Childish/Earn brushed by me on the night of my first Cannes premiere. This is what they meant when they said you will have a Cannes Moment. This is how we do it, indeed.

Attending the Cannes Film Festival has been my dream since I learned it bestowed its highest honor, the Palme d’Or, on Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” We’ve all seen the glamorous red carpets where everyone worships at the altar of World Cinema. But as is so often the case with dreams, the reality is far from what we build in our minds.

The reality is an overcrowded festival with an oligarchic ticketing and badge system one step away from feudalism. Badge determines access at Cannes, and I was warned I would not be blessed with a “good” one my first time out. Still, I would try to see whatever my badge allowed. I would not try for parties, or even the hard-to-get films; I’d just try to soak it all in. Honest.

However, there was one film I could not miss: Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” And, despite my best intentions, I became fixated on seeing it at the premiere. I’m a film critic raised in the south, born four blocks away from where MLK delivered his first sermon, and my mother refused to stop in certain Alabama towns because the Klan was big there. Even in certain areas of Montgomery, we self-segregated. Who else in that crowd, save those involved with the film, could speak to such an experience? Who better than me to attend its debut?

I reached out through the normal channels a few weeks before the premiere. Focus Features and Monkeypaw Prods. were polite, but their tickets were exhausted. And unlike most festivals, at Cannes no one can buy a ticket: They are distributed solely on the basis of influence and access. (Just let that sink in for a minute.) This would take ingenuity.



David Lee/Focus Features

The standard route for Cannes-premiere hopefuls is a kind of patronage system: From as early as eight in the morning, the Palais is surrounded by desperately optimistic people in black-tie garb, holding bilingual signs and seeking “un billet s’il vous plaît.” As the “Blackkklansman” premiere inched closer, I thought I might have to join them.

Naively, I thought the scarcity of African Americans accredited at the festival would play in my favor — but it didn’t seem to matter much at all. If it’s your first time at the festival, for Cannes that’s privilege enough. I bristled at the thought, but I was thrilled to be there — more so, every time I saw another black face with a festival badge. When I spotted another black female with a festival badge and accreditation, I was so taken aback I wanted to yell, “BINGO!”

That scarcity became acute when an all-white panel for 50/50 gender parity made its way onto my Twitter timeline.

My DMs flooded with questions, asking if I could go to make our presence known. By virtue of being here, I had to represent my community. Miraculously, the panel composition shifted the day before the event with the addition of Chaz Ebert and Dionne Audian. Now in addition to trying to get in on the premiere, I also needed to head over to this panel right before to ask some pointed questions. I had officially run out of time.

So, the night before the premiere, I launched my Hail Mary pass: I made an impassioned Twitter plea.

Miraculously, three hours later I had a ticket to the premiere in my hot little hands. Would this have worked if I’d done it three weeks earlier? Maybe. But it would not have been nearly as much fun. After I popped in on the panel to ask my questions, I dashed home. With 20 minutes to get ready I was cutting it close, but I was so happy to have a dress I loved and quickly headed off for a dream night.

Cannes security means walking to the Palais is an arduous task; soldiers parade the streets with AK-47s, and a police officer never seems to be more than five paces away. When I finally queued up, I was right next to a Focus executive who was incredibly generous and helpful, reminding me to just enjoy this a once-in-a-lifetime moment. He also snapped a picture before we reached the carpet, where selfies and all amateur photography is banned. (I also have a picture on the red carpet, but I am not going to comment on how I got it.)

Jacqueline Coley’s contraband shot of the Cannes red carpet

Everyone has to walk up the red carpet to go inside the Palais, and in truth the carpet is terrifying. One false step, and you are famous in the worst way possible for eternity. However, as I stepped on the carpet, so did Kristen Stewart, and I quickly learned what it’s like to be the thing no one is looking at. Clearly over Cannes’ whole “mandatory heels” thing, Kristen posed briefly before kicking off her shoes and walking up the steps barefoot. It was the most relatable red-carpet moment I will ever see. I kept my eyes forward and focused on walking.

At the door, I checked my purse and was ushered to my seat. My ticket benefactor was well connected, so my seat was in a prime location.

I spotted the jury including Ava DuVernay, Kristen Stewart, Cate Blanchett and Denis Villeneuve; I also saw The Weeknd and Chris Tucker in what had to be the blackest premiere of Cannes. This was the largest assembly of black people I had seen at Cannes, and Spike brought half of them. I could not calm down. I kept thinking there was too much going on, I’ll never remember it all, and then it hit me: I made it. I thought about how I got here and how I was breathing some rarified air. I almost cried, but just then the curtains parted and the lights dimmed.

I won’t give too much away on the film, but I will say the bookends of Alec Baldwin spouting hate on Black Americans and Jews, coupled with footage from the Charlottesville Nazi march and counterprotest, had me in tears. I laughed a lot; most of the film’s jokes acted a kind of auditory black-person friend finder. John David Washington may be Denzel’s son, but this is not nepotism; he has undeniable presence and charisma.

Yet for all the work I’d put into getting there, I found myself in the awkward position of being … just a little disappointed? The bones for what I wanted were there, but in his haste to beat us down with a message, Spike left little energy or care for tightening the story.

“BlacKkKlansman” has two main theses: “Art matters in politics, don’t let anyone tell you different,” and “Fuck Trump.” Spike interweaves “Gone with The Wind” with “The Birth of a Nation” — a film he protested at NYU film school — contending that both are equally dangerous. By romanticizing the Civil War and Scarlett O’Hara, Hollywood plants the seeds for racist sympathies. Spike is clearly fed up with all of it, and to hear Trump’s words placed in David Duke’s mouth furthers the parallels to present-day.

However, I found the film lacking in tension and stakes. For undercover officers, at no point did I truly believe they were in danger. Spike spends far more time exploring American Jewish identity, and Adam Driver has the most convincing arc; Washington remains in one location through most of the film. One character Spike got right was Laura Harrier as Patrice, an Angela Davis stand-in who’s the president of the black student union. She’s perhaps Spike’s best fully formed female character since Rosie Perez’s Tina in “Do The Right Thing.” And when the credits rolled, I was wiping away tears.

Maybe that’s all you need. Is the film messy and a little long? Sure, but Spike stuck the landing. Maybe the film is made more for white liberals than black people, but that’s not to say both won’t enjoy it. If Spike’s making this as a way to work some things out for himself and for the country, I don’t fault him. If this film changes just five votes in a state that needs it, I’d it call it best film of 2018. White people have been talking down to POCs in cinema and in politics since America’s founding; I guess now is our time to do the same.

At the afterparty, Spike was not reflective; he was exalted. All the celebs came out, and I even spotted Adam Driver getting down on the dance floor. Spike had a tambourine and was clearly feeling himself. I truly love how black people show up and show out when we have reason to celebrate. Initial reviews for “BlacKkKlansman” have it at 100 percent for Rotten Tomatoes, so I’d be shaking a tambourine, too. The DJ was killing it with ’90s and ’80s R&B jams. It was a blast.

A nappy-headed girl from Montgomery, Alabama made it all the way to Cannes to kick it with celebs on the French Rivera, and ain’t that just something.

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