Based on an outrageous true story, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” veers wildly between hilarious and harrowing, thrilling and appalling, smart and stylish. Most importantly, the two-time Oscar nominee’s latest “joint,” as Lee calls his films, is undeniably relevant, even though most of the events it chronicles happened 40 years ago.
The movie is based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth, who in the 1970s became the first black detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department in Colorado. John David Washington, son of frequent Lee collaborator Denzel Washington, gives a star-making turn as the rookie cop, who gets his first chance to break out of the records room when prickly Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) sends him undercover to monitor the crowd at a local speaking engagement by Black Power movement leader Kwame Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins).
Stallworth is attracted to fiery activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Colorado State Black Student Union that sponsored Ture’s speech, but understandably troubled by her proclamations that all cops are pigs. Determined to prove himself, Ron sees a Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad among the classifieds of the local newspaper, boldly picks up the phone and leaves a message at the provided number asking for more information. When he gets a call back, he is convincing enough as a racist to get invited to a local KKK gathering, which, given his skin color, is a problematic proposition. Continue reading…
Ron teams up with undercover veteran Flip Zimmerman (the excellent Adam Driver, who just keeps getting better), who happens to be a nonpracticing Jew, with Flip playing Ron Stallworth in person and Ron playing himself over the phone.
As Flip manages to move up the local ranks despite the suspicions of hardcore hatemonger Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), Ron keeps working the phones until he ends up making up a long-distance connection with none other than KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, portrayed by a mustachioed Topher Grace in a pitch-perfect performance. The film boasts several stellar turns, including Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist who spews vitriol in racist propaganda films, Ashlie Atkinson as Felix’s wife, who is willing to do literally anything for his love and affection, and Harry Belafonte as an aging activist who gives a horrifying firsthand account of the infamous 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington.
The goal of the so-crazy-it-just-might-work undercover operation is to head off any violent KKK activity, and as the movie careens towards its volatile finale, Lee ratchets the tension to nerve-shredding levels.
But the provocative filmmaker doesn’t confine “BlacKkKlansman” to Stallworth’s absurdly entertaining story of pulling a fast one on the KKK. (From what I’ve read, Lee and co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott have taken some liberties with the story, but it is mostly true to life, as unlikely as it sounds.)
The movie opens with a famous scene from “Gone with the Wind” featuring Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) staggering through a train station packed with wounded Confederate soldiers, continues Lee’s critique of Hollywood’s racist past with a sequence of KKK members delighting over D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation” and closes with distressing footage of last year’s Charlottesville, Virginia, face-off between white nationalists and counter-protesters, where one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The film, which won the grand jury prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France, is being released in theaters the day before the first anniversary of the Charlottesville riots.
“BlacKkKlansman” counts Oscar-winning “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele among its producers, and Lee’s latest audacious movie similarly embraces sudden tonal swerves, which the story isn’t always able to bear, as well as pointed commentary on our country’s contemporary issues with racial injustice and inequality. The two films have something else in common: They are memorable cinematic experiences that rank among the best movies of their respective years.