Spike Lee's latest is one of his best, a funny, soulful blaxploitation-infused take on the ways the racism of America's past ripples through into its present and future.
Spike Lee is no stranger to didacticism. From Do the Right Thing to Chi-Raq to Malcolm X, his works are searing, in-your-face essays on race, the justice system, and the inequities of black life in America. This approach isn’t for everybody – it’s easy to balk at the sledgehammer strategy he often takes to illustrating black pain and America’s enduring history of racism.
BlacKkKlansman is no exception – it’s a bold, dizzying work that insists you know how cartoonishly evil racism is, making no bones about its topicality. However, in a 2018 that sees white supremacist rhetoric and neo-Nazi groups on the rise, BlacKkKlansman’s intoxicating mix of slick period humor and intense progressivism is sadly necessary, making for one of his best, most powerful films in years.
Based on the memoir of the same name by former Colorado Springs police detective Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman tells the insanely true story of Stallworth’s (John David Washington, Denzel’s son) undercover work to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Being black, he obviously can’t meet the Klansmen he converses with over the phone face-to-face. To that end, he and the department hatch a scheme to create two Ron Stallworths – the real Ron talks to them over the phone, while white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron when meeting with “the organization,” as they discreetly call themselves. As they rise in the organization, even to the point of striking up an unexpected phone friendship with “national director” David Duke (Topher Grace), questions abound about how they’ll keep the ruse, and Ron’s own identity as a black detective, secret long enough to bring them down.
Identity and personal perception are front and center in BlacKkKlansman, Lee taking such a patently absurd (yet true) premise to poke at the often self-constructed lines of identity we draw for ourselves. Affiliation is important to the film’s characters, whether it’s Ron being torn between his loyalty to the police force and his budding relationship with black nationalist student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), or the ground-level Klansmen we meet along the way.
That murkiness of identity also extends to Driver’s Flip as well, a man who never had to think about his Jewish heritage until his undercover work made that a liability. “I was always just another white kid,” he says about his self-perception growing up; in seeing Ron’s investigation as a “crusade,” Flip eventually realizes the extent to which he ‘passed’ in white society. When we don’t feel our lives are on the line, we don’t see crises like these as clearly; Lee’s always been concerned with interrogating the white soul, and that complex intermingling of socialized racism, pride and resentment that often plagues our hearts (see: 25th Hour, Summer of Sam). Flip’s a great example of Lee’s desire to see how white racism works from both sides of the transaction.
Lee never takes a moment to let you forget, ignore or excuse the omnipresence of the racial animus on display in the film’s (and our) world. When people are racist, they’re cartoonishly so – Klansmen happily throwing around the n-word, talking gleefully about the upcoming race wars, and so on. While Lee never excuses the Klansmen, there’s at least a motivation for their behaviors; Duke wants political power by selling a respectable version of the Klan, sneering racist Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen, looking for all the world like David Hornsby from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is driven by intense resentment and anger. Felix’s wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) is an especially tragic figure – one wonders if her excitement at participating in Klan activities is borne of internalized misogyny and an innate feeling that Felix is the only one who could ever love her.
These frank discussions of American racism, however, exist in a candy coating of blaxsploitation pulp that really sweetens the pill. In the opening minutes, we’re treated to a Klan propaganda video narrated by a stuffy white nationalist (Alec Baldwin), his gaffes and flubs echoing that early 30 Rock episode where Jack Donaghy goes through a million takes to make a thirty-second corporate promo. It’s a hilarious and harrowing way to set the stage for the film’s gripping depiction of racist behavior, and the implicit dunking the film will take on them for the next two hours.
With his flared pants, mighty ‘fro and stoic gaze, Ron is a figure right out of Super Fly; it’s a deliberate homage, to be sure, Lee even panning old posters of Coffy and Cleopatra Jones across the screen when he and Patrice share their love for the genre. Washington’s a relative newcomer, but he’s great as the unexpectedly dorky detective – a man trying to resolve questions of his own place in a black culture that sees cops as inherently distrustful (and who can blame them, really?). If you close your eyes, John David has Denzel’s reedy timbre and elocution down to a T – it’s remarkable.
While the ridiculousness of the Klan’s absurd worldview and cultish devotion to hate feels right at home with the heightened blaxploitation feel of the film, Lee misses no opportunity to remind us that, in the era of Trump, this kind of racism is alive and well. He makes it easy for us to giggle at these overly theatrical bozos, rednecks full of ignorance and hate. (I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser shows up as a particularly dim Klan member who’s just as useless to Felix’s chapter as he was to Tonya Harding.)
But then we’re reminded of the violent effects of that ignorance – Harry Belafonte makes a haunting cameo, telling student activists about a mentally disabled black boy gleefully burned by white supremacists inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (intercut with a raucous screening of the film at Flip’s initiation into the Klan). Klansmen arm themselves for violent revolution, setting bombs and burning crosses. By the end, all the film’s portents about the politicization of white supremacy are borne out in a jaw-dropping switch to live-action footage, a sickening reminder of the newfound normalization of these ideas in the political discourse (thanks to a president that David Duke rather approves of).
Perhaps BlacKkKlansman’s greatest asset its Lee’s ability to embrace the complications of race and identity along with the broad strokes. While the film occasionally plays like a tamped-down version of Black Dynamite, its deeper emotional and political truths resonate through each frame of Chayse Irvin’s dynamite period cinematography, or Terence Blanchard’s horn-heavy score. It’s one of Lee’s best films in a long time, and one that clearly resonates on a deep, personal level with him.
As we reckon with this newfound status quo, where racism and white nationalism have a bigger platform than they have in decades, Lee stresses the need for audiences to see these movements for what they are – a resurrection of the Klan in so many words. Much like David Duke’s attempts at sanitization, no amount of polish should make us lose sight of what really drives these kinds of people. They’re not ‘dapper’ academics with different ideas; they’re not ignorant people with economic anxiety. They’re racists. It’s that simple.
BlacKkKlansman jive-talks its way into theaters Friday, August 10th.