In the unlikely event you thought that, maybe, Spike Lee was done being Hollywood’s angry conscience for racial justice, BlacKkKlansman is here to kindly relieve you of that misperception. If it doesn’t quite reach the artistic heights of Do the Right Thing, or even Chi-Raq, the new film nonetheless conveys Lee’s signature outrage and, while it contains moments of hilarity and catharsis, it will leave you upset, angry and crystal-clear about the racial ugliness our country faces today.
Based on true events (or, as the opening title card says, “Based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”), BlacKkKlansman concerns Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) cleverly infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the second film this year whose plot turns on the employment of a “white voice” (the first being Boots Riley’s bug-nuts Sorry to Bother You), Stallworth, via telephone, gains the confidence of chapter organizer Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and succeeds in getting himself indoctrinated into the inner circle of the notorious hate group. Once an in-person interview is arranged, Stallworth enlists his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam “Kylo Ren” Driver), to be his body double, banking on Breachway not noticing any voice discrepancies. Zimmerman, who is Jewish, succeeds in deceiving the klansmen in person, all except for Breachway’s paranoid, evil-eyed right-hand man, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen). Tension builds as Stallworth gets closer and closer to klan Grand Wizard David Duke (a hilarious, smarmy Topher Grace), while Kendrickson gets closer to discovering the truth about Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s sting operation.
Hollywood’s depiction of racist villains has often been fairly broad, sometimes bordering on cartoonish, and as a result these antagonists tend to lose their capacity to unsettle us; their faults are so obvious and without humanity that we tend to dismiss them out of hand. BlacKkKlansman is, truth be told, not much different in this regard. Make no mistake: the klansmen of this film, as in reality, are grotesque in their convictions about our world and the kind of America they want to live in. With the exception of Breachway and Duke, the villains are played as monstrously petulant grade-schoolers, in terms of expressing their world view. There’s nothing resembling adult thought and behavior here, and that is likely the point. Lee takes us into the belly of the beast, and the world of these neo-Nazis is appropriately disturbing; there’s next to nothing recognizably human in the eyes of these terrorists, and we breathe a little sigh of relief every time Stallworth or Zimmerman get themselves or each other out of harm’s way. While the world of the Klan might not boast the baroque nightmare visuals of slavery-era Mississippi in Django Unchained (a comparison I’m sure Lee would not appreciate), the fact that these events took place only 45 years ago induces its own type of stomach-turning claustrophobia every time we find Zimmerman in a small office or living room full of seething bigots. And perhaps Lee’s master stroke is the strategic interjection of footage from Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation, and last year’s horrific events in Charlottesville, to convey the fact that, regardless of the era, American racism looks the same and has never gone away. More to the point, we are being put on notice that we are, without a doubt, right in the middle of a historic, national crisis.
Spike Lee has maintained a reputation as a provocateur in cinema, for good reason. And his skills as artist and agitator are put to potent use in BlacKkKlansman, presenting the powerful drama as equal parts entertainment and call-to-arms. Hopefully America answers the call.