It’s no secret we’re living in an increasingly turbulent political climate. Americans are more divided than ever before, with hate groups that have been considered all-but-extinct feeling empowered to crawl out of the woodwork at every turn. Cinema has long served as a powerful rebuke on those who hold power, but with the critical times we’re living in, one could certainly ask the art form to step up its game. In comes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman: a disruptive commentary on American society that better encapsulates our current era better than any film so far.
With all of the philosophizing on how we got to where we are today, one thing should be for certain: the questionable, often condemnable ideas and frustrations that have exploded into the American mainstream are nothing new. They have been here all along. Part of the shrewdness, and searing relevance of Lee’s new film is that its subject, that of a black man infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan, powerfully demonstrates this fact. Though far from perfect, BlacKkKlansman is vitally necessary in its acknowledgement of the pernicious hatred that belies our beloved culture.
Based on the 2014 memoir by Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman dramatizes the incredible true story that he kept secret for over thirty years. In 1979, Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of frequent Lee collaborator Denzel) becomes the first-ever black police officer in Colorado Springs. He puts in a request to do undercover work, a role he fits like a glove considering no one has encountered a black cop in Colorado Springs prior to his arrival. Reading the paper one day, Ron spots a recruitment ad for the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and he sparks an idea.
The black detective picks up the phone, and dons his “white voice” (a concept which took prominence in this year’s Sorry to Bother You), and successfully dupes Walter (Ryan Eggold), the local president of the “organization” into a meeting. Stallworth then reels his colleague Flip (Adam Driver) into the scheme, having him show up to meetings posing as Ron. As things progress, the operation achieves greater success than Stallworth ever imagined. Soon, Ron is chatting up David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone, and scores himself a membership card.
Stallworth’s account, as well as our recent political landscape serve as powerful impetus for Spike Lee to return from hiatus, and to submit new material strong enough to achieve praise similar to that of films from early in his career. With BlacKkKlansman, the director strikes a delicate tone that is both light and comical, and yet volatile with such infuriating subject matter. It’s an impressive balance that produces a work that can still appeal to less demanding of viewers, as well as provide crucial education to those who lack exposure to its message.
Of the many fascinating dynamics on display here, one is Stallworth’s internal conflict with his racial identity as an African-American police officer. As he strives to protect and serve, he’s pressured to rub shoulders with and show loyalty to racist cops who go out and violently harass black citizens. It is a point he is pressed on by student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), who aids as a catalyst for effective self-examination. In addition to laid-back charisma, Washington imbues a struggle beneath the surface here that renders his casting more than mere nepotism.
Then there’s Ron’s partner Flip, who shows up to Klan meetings. He is Jewish, but growing up in majority white America, his parental ancestry never really registered as a part of his life. Yet when immersed in the bowels of malevolence with the KKK, it’s an identity that rushes to the forefront when he is forced to denounce Judaism. Here, Flip immediately identifies with the millions of Jews who have suffered during the Holocaust and elsewhere. It’s strong work on the part of Driver, who proves here what appears to be a passive performance rich with nuance.
Compounding with the fascinating explorations of bigotry and identity, another powerful tool Lee boasts in his arsenal here is a well-informed and insightful look into the history of cinema’s relationship with race, as well as a self-awareness of his own place within it. In pursuit of a larger narrative, Lee weaves a tapestry that includes works like Gone with the Wind and popular blaxploitation flicks Superfly and Shaft, but none are as memorable as his allusions to the infamous Birth of a Nation, which is pictured in a screening for the uproariously delighted KKK.
One area that could be contested, however, is Lee’s depiction of white bigots in the Klan. Much of the film derives humor out of the flagrant stupidity Lee paints them with, such as the slack-jawed meathead aptly portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser. One could rightfully complain that Lee is too eager to characterize white nationalists as a bunch of riled-up backwoods imbeciles, and that is certainly a valid criticism, but they also reflect real-life backwoods imbeciles so convincingly, as we well as comically, it’s a fairly easy misgiving not to hold against the director.
Missteps that are harder to forgive Lee for, however, include his well-intentioned but ham-fisted parallels to our current situation, which harshly catapult the viewer from the moment. One such scene includes a police officer describing to Ron a near-future in which Klan members have shed their robes and progressed to securing political power. It’s an approach that is easy to scoff at. That is, until Lee’s final scene: infuriating real footage of Charlottesville and David Duke last year that serves as a vigorous reminder of how critical and necessary the preceding content is.