Review: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Is Spike Lee’s Most Impassioned Work In Years

Spike Lee’s latest, the provocatively-titled BlacKkKlansman, starts by telling us it’s based on “some fo’ real fo’ real shit”. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just some bo’shit, though, because the outlandish tale of an African-American cop who somehow goes undercover in the KKK sounds tough to swallow. But it is indeed true, albeit not as straight-up as it sounds, and Lee uses this bizarre, racially-charged story from yesterday to paint a picture of the common presence of racism today.

To be perfectly blunt, Lee hasn’t had a great film in years, and while BlacKkKlansman has its issues, mostly tonal, it shows the director at his most fired up. And Lee is at his best when he’s fired up about something, in particular the issue of race. The film is set in 1970s Colorado Springs, where rookie African-American cop Ron Stallworth (a cool as ice, afro’ed John David Washington), the first black cop in the department’s history, teams up with Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover in the Ku Klux Klan. Sounds ridiculous, but it isn’t like Ron just throws on a hood and walks into the KKK’s local chapter. He and Flip share the Stallworth identity, forming a composite person to fool the racist idiots into allowing them into their midst. Ron, using his white voice like a refugee from Sorry to Bother You, spews racist bile over the phone, while Flip takes over and plays the role physically, ingratiating himself with the Klan’s members.

It makes for an odd sort of buddy comedy, one in which the everyday oppression of blacks and Jews is examined from an unusual perspective. Ron sees what’s up; after having been banished to the records room to keep him out of sight, he finally gets a chance at a real case. And what is it? To investigate and report on a Black Student Union speech given by the fiery activist Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). The chief doesn’t want Carmichael riling the blacks up, but he also doesn’t want the good blacks’ turned into radicals. It’s an insulting gig, but Ron uses it as an opportunity. The words are impassioned, and you can tell Lee feels they are important and must be heard. His camera focuses not on the speaker but those listening, capturing some in bold and some in silhouette, all enraptured by the man’s words. Ron does his job and connects with Patrice, the Black Student Union president played by Laura Harrier in brainy eyeglasses and a delicious Cleopatra Jones afro. She doesn’t need to know he’s a cop; that would make things complicated.

Flip doesn’t really see the point in stirring up the hornets’ nest, leading to some interesting back-and-forth about racial identity as the Jewish cop passes himself off as pure white to the Klan’s dangerous but idiotic members.  There’s a lot that Lee wants the audience to chew on, but subtlety has never been his strongest suit and neither has comedy. Unfortunately, Lee likes to try and use humor to drive home the points he deems most crucial, but too often the jokes are ill-timed and negate the seriousness of the situation. The KKK is planning a major show of force, and while Flip is in good with most of them, including Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace, showing how blasé white supremacy can be), he’s in very real danger and so is Ron.

The occasionally-flippant tone can leave you unbalanced and unsure where Lee is coming from. He bookends the film with an array of hard-hitting footage, beginning with scenes from Gone with the Wind and concluding with a montage that includes the Rodney King beating, Black Lives Matter, and Trump’s “very fine people” response to Charlottesville. The Trump connection is drawn again early on as Alec Baldwin plays a virulently racist white supremacist who constantly flubs his newsreel voiceovers while babbling about mongrels and Jews on the Supreme Court. In-between we also get scenes from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Lee understands the power of cinema and the impact this footage has. If heavy-handed they are also incredibly effective in charting the course of racism across decades. Lee is comfortable and assured here, in particular in a suspenseful finale that reminds you how good he was on Inside Man. His skills at ratcheting up tension have been sorely underused and I hope he gets a chance to fix that. He makes you wait for the classic dolly shot but when it comes it’s more than worth it.

While given the look and soul of a 1970s Blaxploitation film, BlacKkKlansman always feels contemporary as Lee seeks answers for the problems we face today. It’s good to see Lee back on his high horse, having found something to say and the passion with which to say it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5