One of Spike Lee’s best movies.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is many films, all at once. It’s a serious drama about racial issues. It’s a thrilling undercover cop movie. It’s a disturbing comedy about white supremacy. It’s a horror story about white supremacy. It’s a complex dialogue about propagandist cinema. And most importantly… it’s fantastic.
BlacKkKlansman stars John David Washington as Detective Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1979, Stallworth begins an undercover operation into the white supremacist organization called The Ku Klux Klan, in which he impersonates a racist white man over the phone. His infiltration is so successful he even gets the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone for a chit-chat. When he needs to appear in person, Stallworth enlists his fellow officer, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to take on the persona.
It’s a true story, and a fundamentally fascinating one. The white supremacists are so easily tricked into being friends with a black person that their core racism is instantly exposed for idiocy. And yet, although BlacKkKlansman has a wry sense of humor, Spike Lee never loses sight of the fact that, as dimwitted as Ron Stallworth’s marks are, they represent a clear and present danger to Ron, his friends, and the country.
As a police drama, BlacKkKlansman is incisive, but the film’s plot isn’t as engaging as the way Spike Lee engages with it. He seems tantalized by the relationship between stupidity and dangerousness, and the capacity for people with leadership qualities to manipulate everyone around them, for good and for ill.
The film begins with Alec Baldwin playing Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, giving a portentous speech about the “dangers” of integration, and constantly flubbing his lines. He is not powerful. He’s just reading dialogue off a page.
A short while later, Stallworth goes undercover at a speaking engagement for Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), who speaks candidly and insightfully about systematic politic oppression, and the cinema that made him internalize racism, by rooting for Tarzan to defeat the native Africans. He never stutters, he never reveals he’s in character. He’s speaking from genuine experience and soul-searching thought. Lee fills the frame with faces of the people absorbing Kwame Ture’s words, and then he cuts to scenes in which they intelligently debate his teachings.
The Klansmen that Stallworth and Zimmerman infiltrate have no such debates. They have house parties where they rah-rah each other. They celebrate while watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, while an elderly man named Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) illustrates in terrifying detail the real-life horrors that Griffith’s pro-Klan propaganda film inspired in the South. Both stories are making an political impact, and Lee’s film announces itself as part of that same storytelling tradition.
BlacKkKlansman features remarkable performances by Washington, Driver, Hawkins, and Laura Harrier as Colorado Springs activist Patrice Dumas. They seem to be perfectly calibrated with Spike Lee’s exuberant storytelling style, and give heightened performances because they are heightened people, who think about and live through serious, unusual and sometimes ridiculous situations. Even at their broadest, they come across as honest and naturalistic.
The Klansmen themselves are depicted as dopes. They have texture, and most of them aren’t cartoons, but they are the subject of the film’s derision. And even that comes across like a smart cinematic trick. It’s easy to disregard the people who disagree with you, with a joke about their foolish ideas. It’s another thing to confront the reality that writing their malevolence off as a silly joke actually gives their ideas room to flourish, to the extent that white supremacist groups still exist, thrive and find new and prominent followers and leaders to this very day.
BlacKkKlansman is a funny film but it’s no joke. It’s a vicious reminder of how little progress has been made, and how dangerous the world still is, when fools have power and hateful ideas are unchecked. It’s also a ripping crime thriller, a pointed character-driven drama, and an insightful critical analysis of the cinematic form. BlacKkKlansman has just about everything, and watching it is a breathless, exhausting, and impressive experience.