Spike Lee, like fellow filmmakers Ken Loach, Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, has always been critical of the establishment in his films. To be more specific, Spike Lee’s films have been critical about the treatment of African Americans in the United States by White Americans and their misrepresentation in American film. It was inevitable that he criticize Trump America and he does so while simultaneously mocking the hypocrisy and absurdity of the Ku Klux Klan in his wonderful return to form, the 1970s-set BlacKkKlansman.
I’m a big fan of Spike Lee. I think his magnum opus Malcolm X (1992) is one of the greatest films of the 1990s and I also love the vastly underrated Miracle at St. Anna (2008). While I don’t love it (Lee’s politics sometimes rub me the wrong way; more on that later), it’s also hard to argue about the cinematic achievement and influence of Do The Right Thing (1989). Lee had been somewhat fading out of the picture in recent years beginning with the totally unnecessary and inferior remake of Oldboy (2013) and continuing with the bizarre and ultimately forgettable low-budget indies Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) and Chi-Raq (2015). No one is happier than me that Lee is back to making important cinema and BlacKkKlansman is an exquisitely crafted film.
The film opens with a title card stating “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. Set in 1979, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son) applies to join the police force in small-town Colorado Springs. We don’t get to learn much about Stallworth’s background and what lead him to this place but we quickly learn that he’s looking for a substantial assignment that can help him make a difference in the community. Stallworth is hired as the first African American detective on the CSPD and is placed in the records room–as a clerk’s assistant –much to his disdain. Stallworth speaks with his Captain and requests a transfer. Opportunity strikes – the police learn that Kwame Ture, a civil rights leader, is going to be speaking at a rally at the local college. Stallworth is assigned to go undercover and infiltrate the rally to see if Ture is inciting the African American students to commit acts of violence. While there, Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, Peter Parker’s girlfriend in Spiderman: Homecoming) the president of the black student union at the college. Stallworth does not find evidence of any crime at the rally but he does form a bond and instant attraction to Patrice.
As a result of a successful operation, Stallworth is reassigned to be an undercover detective permanently. While reading a newspaper at his desk, Stallworth comes across an ad for the Ku Klux Klan. He calls the number and jokingly pretends to be a white man wanting to join. To his surprise he is invited to meet with Walter Breachway, the president of the Colorado Springs chapter. Stallworth recruits fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to join his operation and act as his white avatar for in-person meetings with the Klan (or “The Organization” as they like to be called which is pointed out later by Breachway). Zimmerman acting as Stallworth meets with Breachway and introduced to the other members of the chapter including the hyper radicalized and completely unstable Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) and his obedient wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). The Klan members are suspicious of Zimmerman at first but eventually he’s able to gain their trust and is granted membership in the KKK.
\Meanwhile, Stallworth continues making phone calls and eventually speaks with David Duke (Topher Grace whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything since his disastrous role as Venom in Spiderman 3), the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Stallworth convinces Duke to come visit Colorado Springs so that Zimmerman can gain insight into the Organization’s innermost workings and intentions. Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice but doesn’t tell her that he’s an undercover detective. Patrice predictably discovers the truth anyway, and (again, predictably) Stallworth’s personal and professional lives clash at an inopportune time. The time being, of course, when Breachway and Felix are executing a bomb plot they have concocted that Stallworth and Zimmerman have to race to stop.
\It’s a common criticism of Lee’s films that he doesn’t know how to write a white character who’s not a two-dimensional, snarling, malicious racist. The Klan members in this film are indeed portrayed as violent, uneducated buffoons and I have to wonder if Topher Grace, as David Duke, the undisputed leader and face of the organization, was cast because he’s pastry, scrawny and weak. Lee needs to be given some credit, however, for Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a non-practicing Jew who begins to reflect on who he is and his heritage after infiltrating the organization. Adam Driver turns in a fantastic performance and Zimmerman is perhaps the best written white character is all of the Lee’s films.
People may forget that Spike Lee is a cinephile on par with Tarantino and PTA and that there’s always some cinematic reference to be found in his films. In this film, Lee makes reference to the Blacksploitation films of the 1970s (the film is shot in the same style as the films of that movement) including Shaft and Super Fly. There’s also reference to Gone with the Wind and Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for obvious reasons. In the film’s most powerful scene, Lee crosscuts the white Klan members watching Birth of a Nation as inspiration and stimulation to enact their endgame against the black community with screen legend Harry Belafonte talking to the very same black community telling them a story of when he was 18 years old in 1917, a year after Birth of a Nation was released, and how his mentally-challenged friend was brutally murdered by a white mob who suspected him of raping a white woman. The mob was inspired to commit their heinous crime by the very same film.
The film shifts tone from comedy to drama repeatedly and it’s a testament to Lee’s skill as a filmmaker that he can pull this off so effortlessly without the film tail spinning out of control. There are several subtle winks and nods scattered throughout the runtime to Trump America which would have been great if Lee had left it at that. Lee has a penchant for going overboard and not-so-subtly infusing his pictures with his own personal politics and propaganda. This can sour a viewer and diminish the overall power of his story. His points are (more often that not) important, timely and valid, but I find myself wishing that he would trust his audience to understand what he’s trying to say without hammering it into our heads with blunt force. I can empathize with Lee on why he feels the need to take this approach with this film – one only has to follow Donald Trump on Twitter to see why – but without spoiling the ending of the film I’ll just conclude by saying that I wished the film ended 10 minutes earlier than it did. While I still believe that this film is required viewing and would recommend it wholeheartedly, the ending for me takes what would have been a great film and knocks it down to excellent.