During this decade’s great wave of African-American filmmaking, one figure has been curiously and conspicuously absent: Spike Lee. He has always been bedeviled by inconsistency, and some of his movies have been screamingly bad. Still, it would be tragic (if not atypical) if he were left behind by the very cinematic flowering that he largely inspired. Fortunately, we don’t have to reckon with that yet, as his BlacKkKlansman comes out this week to remind us that when he’s on top of things, he can produce greatness. Spike isn’t as young as he was, but the old provocateur still has something new to say.
The movie is based on the incredible true story — a disclaimer says, “Dis joint based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” — of Ron Stallworth, the detective who in the 1970s became the first black officer in the history of Colorado Springs’ police department. Played by John David Washington, Ron is initially assigned to a crappy archiving job at the station until he finds a newspaper ad seeking recruits for the Ku Klux Klan’s local chapter and calls them, posing as a white racist over the phone. With a Jewish colleague (Adam Driver) impersonating him in face-to-face meetings, Ron rises through the ranks of the organization to become the head of the chapter and meet Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
This sounds like the greatest blaxploitation flick ever, and Lee will take some satisfaction in beating Quentin Tarantino to this story. Policemen have typically been villains in Lee’s movies, so it’s refreshing that Ron is a straight-up hero, though as a black cop, his position is necessarily complicated. Sympathetic to the black liberation movement’s goals, he’s not on board with their “let’s kill white cops” rhetoric. He has to take crap from his fellow officers, including one loathsome cop (Frederick Weller) who boasts about gunning down black people. Harder than anything, he has to stay in character when he’s talking to the Klan. In a funny bit early on, Ron says, “I hate niggers” into his phone and turns the heads of all the white cops in the squad room.
Rhetorical excess is another feature of Lee’s filmmaking, and this movie is no exception. We don’t really need the prologue sequence with Alec Baldwin as a hate-spewing 1950s social scientist arguing for the inferiority of the black race. Lee also could have put the footage from the Charlottesville hate crime to better use at the end, too. The film has already tied its villains to the current white government, which stands for very little that the Klan does not. We don’t need to see Trump’s weak and cowardly response to bring that home.
These are negligible flaws, though, compared with the superb ensemble acting, another hallmark of Lee’s filmmaking. Washington (a former football player and the son of Denzel) is a relative newcomer who holds the screen easily as this cop with a lot of conflicts. Corey Hawkins contributes a magnetic turn as Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael, who gives a speech to Colorado Springs’ black community, and Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen is frightening as that one Klan member who’s more militant than his brothers. As he did in I, Tonya, Paul Walter Hauser steals scenes right and left as the idiot of the piece. Maybe the best here is an understated, excellent Driver as a wary undercover cop who knows how to blend in with the racists. One of the highlights here is a nifty scene when a Klansman starts in on denying the Holocaust, and this Jewish cop pushes back in a wholly unexpected way.
Lee’s formal skill is here, too, in his intercutting between a Klan initiation and a black student meeting where an old man (Harry Belafonte) describes witnessing a lynching as a boy. You may think of Lee as a filmmaker who’s New York to the bone, but he films Colorado’s mountain greenery lovingly. He also contributes a hit of pure joy in an early scene with Ron dancing along with a disco full of other black people to Cornelius Brothers’ “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” It reminds us: African-American culture isn’t all suffering and pain. Sometimes it’s just blissing out while singing, “I believe, I believe, I believe I’m fallin’ in love.” While the war on racism seems never-ending, it sure is fun to be Ron Stallworth and put one over on the racists.
Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on Ron Stallworth’s book. Rated R.