The fact that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story shouldn’t surprise anybody — Ron Stallworth’s story is famous, as it should be — but it should scare the shit out of you anyways. It’s 1979, and Stallworth (played here by John David Washington, Denzel’s son) has hit the big time: He’s Colorado Springs’ first black police detective, having worked his way up from the evidence room all the way up to his current office. When thumbing through the newspaper one day, he notices a classified listing advertising Klan membership, and, without much hesitation, he calls the number. He’s put on the phone with the head of the chapter, Walter (Ryan Eggold), and using every racial epithet known to man, convinces him that he’s a hateful white person looking to join up with Walter’s merry brand of dipshit racists.
The Klansman buys every word, and invites him down to a meet-up. Because of that, Stallworth gets his own task force to try and infiltrate the hate group. Given that he can’t go to these meetings in person, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is assigned for the physical undercover duty, and the two combine forces to create one fictional “Ron Stallworth” (the real Ron having fucked up over the phone by using his real name to talk with the head Klansman). The detectives rise up quickly in the Klan ranks, and gain enough notoriety that even David Duke (a ferocious Topher Grace) takes notice and attempts to befriend Ron. Through their work, the two officers uncover a Klan plot to bomb a march, and have to work to foil it. It’s Lee’s most accessible and exciting film in years, practically built to entice mainstream audiences into the theater, but it’s as accomplished and intelligent as all of his other work.
The director and his screenwriters know their characters well, and it’s part of why BlacKkKlansman succeeds as well as it does. There are a number of fascinating conflicts at the heart of this film, but ultimately two stand out from the rest of the pack as the most potent. The first is the moral dilemma of the black police officer, dramatized by the conflict in Stallworth’s relationship with the leader of the Black Student Union, Patrice (Laura Harrier in a star-making turn), whom he meets when he’s forced to infiltrate a speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) by his bosses. The cop believes that he’s doing the right thing by using the power of a corrupt institution like the police to bring down groups like the Klan, but the activist thinks he’s essentially a scab, crossing the picket lines to work as a servant of white supremacy.
This argument is never fully resolved, but each perspective is given room to breathe and state its points narratively (Stallworth and his team actually does some good, but the rest of the department basically proves Patrice’s point via their actions), and it’s stimulating to watch Lee process his own feelings about it. The second is Flip’s dilemma, as a Jewish man who never really faced any prejudice due to his secular upbringing (he has “skin in the game,” as Stallworth tells him) and who is forced confront his heritage thanks to the undercover operations and the suspicions of Felix (Vikings‘ Jasper Pääkkönen), the most Chaotic Evil of the Klansmen. Driver manages his arc with his typical combination of fury and grace, and his story never feels obvious or easy (I highly recommend you check out this article by Vulture‘s Abraham Riseman, which goes into further detail and adds a perspective that I can’t give you).
Lee’s most compelling here when he’s dealing with the subject second closest to his artistic heart — the representation and misuse of media as it comes to race over the last century — and his observations haven’t been this perfectly realized since Bamboozled back in 2000. He’s rarely been this specific with regards to his targets: Footage from Gone with the Wind (whose train-yard scene opens the film) and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation are shown, and Bill O’Reilly’s famous “Fuck it! We’ll do it live!” rant is echoed in the prologue, which features Alec Baldwin as a racist propagandist attempting to record a Klan recruitment film despite his inability to read from cue cards. Out of all of these examples, Griffith’s racist tome, cinema’s first blockbuster, is frequently cited and its footage is liberally used throughout BlacKkKlansman, especially near the film’s climax. An old activist (Harry Belafonte, making a rare screen appearance in the twilight of his years) is invited to talk with the student union prior to a large protest they’re planning, one that the Klan wants to target. He proceeds to talk about a handicapped kid whom he knew, who was viciously tortured and murdered in broad daylight by a white mob, hopped up on Griffith’s bullshit. All the while, Lee is crosscutting to the Klansmen during “Stallworth’s” initiation, where David Duke and company are watching the movie, laughing and eating popcorn, lapping it all up like diabetic dogs gulping down water.
What’s even more intriguing are the scenes in which Lee name-checks the things he loves — though he’s never been afraid to do that (see Radio Raheem’s Night of the Hunter riffs in Do the Right Thing) — and offers them up as a broader alternative to the quiet evils he shows us. There’s a moment in the middle of the film where Ron and Patrice are on a walk, talking about their favorite blaxploitation movies, and Lee splices in the posters for the films they’re talking about, alongside them — a towering Pam Grier at one moment, a cool Richard Roundtree at the other — until his characters are in the forefront, the same size as their heroes were. It’s a subtle way of describing the way that positive representation reinforces folks and helps them grow, and it’s exciting and, frankly, joyous to see these characters celebrating themselves through their favorite films at the time when they were being made.
Lee’s use of the setting — early ’70s Colorado Springs — isn’t as vibrant or as enticing as it was in something like Summer of Sam, but that’s fitting, given the sparseness of the landscape, captured well by cinematographer Chayse Irvin. What he is exceptionally smart about is how to weaponize the setting for humor, whether it’s music (there’s a great David Bowie gag in the middle of the film) or in the styles of the time (Washington’s perfectly sculpted afro is fantastically photographed). And, of course, some measure of jokey awkwardness is going to come with the territory, given how OJ Simpson’s name was on the tip of every white person’s tongue when it came to discussing black athletes they respected. Yet, Lee’s overwhelming point is that, no matter the surface details, no matter the wrinkles, our culture is still suffering from the same sickness, and will continue to (the least effective moments are when Trump and his band of racists are directly alluded to in dialogue, as they’re the clumsiest of the film’s satirical barbs).
This particular evil is a many-headed Hydra, and a long montage of the terrible events that occurred in Charlottesville last year is included at the end of the film to drive that point home. It’s not a movie that you’re going to leave with a smile on your face, but BlacKkKlansman is a galvanizing call-to-action to fight and defeat these cretins wherever they stand.