Spike Lee finds an outlet for his anger in the wild true story of BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver and John David Washington | Focus Features

Adam Driver and John David Washington | Focus Features

Since the early successes of his career, director Spike Lee has been seen in the Hollywood sphere as a lightning rod for cinematic explorations of racial issues in the United States. With every film he released, well received or not, his reputation as a leading critic of contemporary American society grew. In light of the enormous cultural mark he has left on the film industry, it's curious that despite the fact that racial tension in the country has reached dangerous new heights, spurred on not only by so-called fringe groups or individuals but also by elected officials, Lee hasn't made an effective or even well-known film in over a decade. His last critical and commercially successful foray into narrative filmmaking was 2006's Inside Man, a highly entertaining but largely uncomplicated heist film. In a time seemingly molded for a filmmaker such as Lee to express his anger most effectively, his voice has been noticeably absent and the words A Spike Lee Joint haven't carried the weight that they usually do. 

Bursting loudly back into the limelight, Lee finds his purpose again with BlacKkKlansman, a dramatization of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Ballers), Colorado Springs, Colorado's first black police officer who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be an interested new recruit over the phone. His undercover work is supported by partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi),  a cop who mostly ignores his Jewish heritage until Stallworth reminds him that he too "has skin in the game." As the pair venture deeper and deeper into the Klan's ranks, they encounter some of the organization's vilest individuals, including the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace, That '70s Show). 

While a large amount of the film is played for laughs, riffing on the fact that there's no one stupider than white supremacists, it also never lets you forget that there's no one more dangerous.  Despite their characterization as a collection of dumb hicks, there's no scene where Stallworth's "fellow" Klansmen aren't utterly terrifying in their hatred. These depictions allow for Lee to channel his outrage about the treatment of black Americans into a impactful lesson about the connection between our country's past and present. The myth many tell themselves about racial equality in the modern era, that open racism and oppression are something we overcame long ago, is swiftly put out to pasture as Lee's characters spit their poisonous words at every mention of a non-white American and you realize the racism doesn't feel aged. In an early scene, Stallworth laughs off the idea of an openly racist president elected to power on the backs of the types of people he's investigating. By the time President Trump makes a cameo of sorts in the film's final moments, the parallels are already achingly clear.

Focus Features

Focus Features

The aforementioned climatic sequence, which rolls directly into the credits, is perhaps a mission statement for Lee's entire career. It features no narrative elements, just a string of real world clips (which I will not spoil here) that tie the film's entire message into one cohesive work of righteous anger. It will be dismissed by some as easy or heavy-handed, but that's entirely the point: it shouldn't be this easy to take this insane story and tie to today's problems. But it is.

It helps that Lee's script is perhaps his most grounded in some time, allowing viewers to steep in the grimy realism of Stallworth's experiences. There's plenty of humor and nods to the exploitation era of cinema Lee so clearly loves, but it never veers into the hyperbole or messiness that has derailed some of Lee's recent work. The true story gives Lee the patience to slow down and focus on what he's trying to say  rather than stylize his message into something abstract. The message is loud, clear, and one of the resonant explorations of race on film in a year already refreshingly full of them. 

Of course, it's all made possible by the very fine collection of actors he has assembled, of which Washington and Driver are the obvious standouts. Washington expertly toes the line between the smooth operator and conflicted square that is brought out by his (fictional) activist girlfriend Patrice's (Spider-Man: Homecoming) dislike of police. He clearly possesses the range and talent of his superstar father (and Lee collaborator) Denzel Washington, but exudes a freshness and knack for comedic timing that sets him apart. Driver, who is on a career roll as of late, is excellent as the dry straight man to much of the film's antics, while Grace is ingeniously cast against type to deliver a timid but disturbingly sociopathic role as Duke. 

Ultimately, BlacKkKlansman will stand the test of time as one of Lee's finest joints. It's of course sometimes chaotic and unsubtle in all the ways you would expect from one of his films, but it's an effective, funny, and biting use of true crime to expose real truths about the American condition. One can only hope filmmaking continues to follow Lee's example and provide the same sort of socially relevant artistry. 

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Ryan Ninesling