It’s good to have Spike Lee’s voice back and strong, even if the situation that brought it out of hibernation is an ugly and terrible reality.
Spike Lee has never made a perfect movie, but that’s kind of the point. Many of his best films mix tonally uneven comedy with uncomfortable truth on race while his worst ones collapse under the weight of their ambition or just poor ideas to begin with. Even Do the Right Thing, the director’s widely-regarded 1989 career peak, wears its messy charm on its sleeve. However, despite some positive praise for Chi-Raq (2015), Lee hasn’t made an excellent feature film since 25th Hour (2002). Unfortunately, in the era of a Donald Trump presidency we are in need of voices like Spike Lee and with BlacKkKlansman he has made one of the most incisive, funny and politically charged films of his career.
BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective who organized an undercover takedown of a Ku Klux Klan cell in Colorado Springs during the 1970s. While the concept sounds like the basis for a straightforward action film, Lee uses BlacKkKlansman to explore our own complicity as viewers in the intricate and painful history of racial hatred and oppression in the United States. At various points throughout his film, Lee uses footage from Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to show us the hateful and inaccurate portrayals of African Americans perpetuated by Hollywood, the type of image white Americans had been fed and then went on to believe, promoting stereotypes of violent, animalistic men and subservient mammies. The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic that glorifies the KKK, is especially problematic as its scenes of black men preying on helpless white women sparked violence by incensed white audiences against African Americans following screenings.
Though BlacKkKlansman is firmly rooted in the late ‘70s, it is impossible to watch without considering a modern narrative. At the time, the Klan was a fringe group of nutjobs who burned crosses and made threats against blacks and Jews. David Duke is portrayed as a goofy loser by Topher Grace, a twerpish head of a bumbling organization that spouts some pretty heinous rhetoric. But the legitimization of people like Duke by our current president runs subtextually through BlacKkKlansman like a charged current. It makes the laughs stick in our throats as Lee and BlacKkKlansman careen from comedy to action movie to drama to something even more resonate and haunting.
We first meet Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), as he joins the Colorado Springs police force as its first black cop. After minimal fish out of water antics, Stallworth soon becomes an integral part of the force after infiltrating a Stokely Carmichael speech while wearing a wire in an effort to monitor black dissidence groups in Colorado Springs, a historically white, conservative city. Soon, Stallworth is heading an effort to penetrate a local KKK group, one that has him on the phone not only with local operatives, but Duke himself, who claims he can tell a black man by his voice while being duped. But how can Ron Stallworth, an African American, show up to a Klan meeting? Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish detective who becomes the face to Stallworth’s voice. Lee mines these ironies into comic gold but he also has something deeper on his mind here.
As BlacKkKlansman reaches its conclusion, Lee has created a legitimately tense thriller. Though most of the Klansmen are distasteful morons and bumbling fools, there are some clever players that are especially dangerous. One member, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), suspects that Zimmerman is Jewish and despite the protestations of his Klan brothers, decides to do some of his own research. There is a very real threat to Zimmerman, and some other major characters, showing that even though we can laugh at the rednecks who make up the Klan, their deadly rhetoric can very easily turn to a bloody reality.
Lee’s cinema has always been confrontational and there are some genuinely lyrical moments over BlacKkKlansman long runtime. Some of the more disarming scenes simply feature black faces absorbed in Carmichael’s speech or an extended dance sequence that should feel like they have no bearing on the film. But they do. These are the people Duke and his drooling Klansman want to hurt, maim and kill. And by the end of BlacKkKlansman, Lee takes us from a detective fantasia into a world that is very real, very modern and very terrifying. It’s good to have Spike Lee’s voice back and strong, even if the situation that brought it out of hibernation is an ugly and terrible reality.