Some movies are so bizarre, you’d never believe them, were it not for the claims they were “Based on a True Story.” Here’s the premise of Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman (yes, the spelling is intentional): In 1972, Ron Stallworth was the first ever black cop hired by the Colorado Springs police force. Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son in a wonderful debut) is immediately met with skepticism and hostility by his colleagues. A random perusal through The Gazette reveals that the Ku Klux Klan has their number listed in the local paper(!).
Stallworth contacts the local Klan recruiter, pretends to be a white supremacist, and has his white partner Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) stand in for him during tense face-to-face meetings with local klan members. As an infiltration of the vile, potentially dangerous card-carrying Klan goes deep, both Stallworth (pretending to be a black activist on another assignment) and Zimmerman (who has never considered his Jewish heritage before pretending to be an anti-Semite while undercover) wrestle with their true identities and the extent of their activism.
Lee’s new film is among his angriest and makes on-the-nose comparisons between the casual racism in the 1970s and the current political/social climate. As a commentary on today’s disturbing tendency for racism to be casually out in the open and spewing from the mouths of highly placed officials, his film is shocking in its timeliness. Topher Grace pops up in the second act, playing David Duke, the infamous “Grand High Wizard of the KKK.” Grace is effectively creepy in the role and, once we get a look at the real Duke during news footage near the film’s end, his casting proves to be an inspired choice.
Horrifying footage of the Charlottesville incident from a year ago appropriately concludes the film, tying together Lee’s specific points. It also guarantees that, for all the rousing scenes in the final act, audiences won’t walk away from this film smiling. For all the heated, concentrated talking points Lee brings up (including some tasty barbs at our 45th president), there’s also the question of how much of this audiences can take.
Like Lee’s brilliant but overwhelming and challenging Bamboozled, this takedown of 20-21st century racism and political hypocrisy is loaded with racial slurs and a vivid depiction of the members and practices of the KKK. Lee clearly despises this “organization” as much as I do, but the endless stream of hateful language and gleefully evil behavior can be tough to endure. So is the often didactic screenplay and a 135-minute running time that should have seriously been tightened.
The barbs at popular, celebrated films with hurtful, seriously dated and damaging stereotypes, like Gone With the Wind and The Birth of the Nation, are right on. Not as sharply conceived is Stallworth’s relationship with a student activist (well played by Laura Harrier), a subplot that adds very little.
To Lee’s credit, BlackkKlansman maintains its bite and entertains mightily, even as the material unsettles. Washington is impressive and confident in his first leading turn, though it’s Driver’s portrayal of Zimmerman’s rattled state of mind and growing disgust that is the film’s most compelling. Everyone in the cast does fine work, including Corey Hawkins, so good as Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, who impresses here as Stokely Carmichael (when he was known as Kwame Ture).
Many are calling this Lee’s “comeback,” though he hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, he’s among our most prolific, versatile filmmakers, releasing urgent documentaries more frequently than narrative films. His work can be overstuffed but he’s among our most passionate filmmakers. Like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (who have both provided Lee with mentorship and support), Lee’s films are alive with visual zest, fiery characters and the immediacy of their material. BlackkKlansman is Lee at his most confrontational and urges viewers to consider how much we’re currently repeating the mistakes of the 20th century. Stallworth’s crazy journey is full of wry humor, surprising twists, and genuine triumph, but the world he fought against in 1972 is still recognizable and in need of change.
Rated R / 135 Min.
Photo courtesy IMDB