Past reports of Spike Lee’s declining artistic relevance have been greatly exaggerated.
Some people speak the King’s English, others speak jive. I, Ron Stallworth here, happen to be fluent in both.
Shortly before the explosive climax of BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee spends about a quarter of an hour cross-cutting between two starkly different scenes. In a house in Colorado Springs, an elder statesman of the Civil Rights movement (played by Harry Belafonte) holds an audience of young activists rapt as he tells the stomach-curdling story of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Joining him on the makeshift stage are members of the local Black Student Union, silently holding the real photographs taken from the scene of the murder. The older man speaks softly, slowly, but firmly, only building to a crescendo at the very end, leading a defiant chorus of “Black Power” and upraised fists, and for one brief moment, staring directly into Lee’s camera.
The other scene is an initiation ceremony into the Ku Klux Klan, which pilfers familiar religious rites and fervor as the Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), the country’s most aw-shucks racist, welcomes the newest recruits — including undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) — into “the Organization.” The ceremony concludes with popcorn and Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking film/racist screed that played in theaters the same year as the lynching, here accompanied by cheers, jeers, and triumphant chants of “White Power.” Through a window watches Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black member of the Colorado Springs Police Department and Zimmerman’s partner, trying not to boil over with rage.
If that sequence sounds like it’s driving its point a little too hard, you don’t know Spike Lee. The outspoken and indefatigable writer/director has put his name on a new narrative or documentary project just about every single year for decades, but has lately taken on a critical reputation as more of a provocateur than a storyteller. BlacKkKlansman, however, is the perfect synthesis of everything the director of Do the Right Thing does well: By turns aggressive and accessible, horrifying and hilarious, it’s the right story told by the right artist at the exact right moment.
The opening titles tell us that that story is “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”: In the late 1970s, rookie officer Stallworth talks his way out of a records room post and into a telephone friendship with members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. By adopting a “white-enough” voice and convincingly parroting back their hateful rhetoric (as his fellow officers look on goggle-eyed), Stallworth earns an entry point through sheer, fearless charisma. He suspects that the Klan is planning some kind of violent attack against local activists, but if the matter is to be investigated further, someone’s going to have to actually go undercover with the group, and it obviously can’t be him. “With the right white man,” Stallworth says confidently, “you can do anything.”
That white man is Flip Zimmerman, who skeptically agrees to pose as “Ron Stallworth” (because the inexperienced Ron accidentally used his real name) and actually go through through the initiation process, including repeatedly putting himself in a room with some of the worst people one could find — some frighteningly intelligent, like chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold); others, like Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) are mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers; the worst of the bunch is Felix (Finnish star Jasper Pääkkönen), an unhinged monster with a “normal” wife (Ashlie Atkinson) who radiates as much hate as he does. Zimmerman and Stallworth have to navigate this minefield while secretly foiling cross burnings and whatever else the Klan is planning — the latter over the phone, the former in person.
Lee’s style is slick, relying on split-screens and a score (from Terence Blanchard) that apes the Blaxploitation films of the era, but the themes at play are as heavy as stone. Central is Identity: Stallworth wanted to take on the role as the “Jackie Robinson” of the Colorado Springs PD, but the casual (and not-so-casual) racism of many of his fellow officers takes its toll, and he channels that indignation into his phone calls with the Klan — right up to, improbably, David Duke himself, who is thrilled to have found a true kindred spirit in wanting to, you know, somehow bring back America’s greatness. But Stallworth also falls in with the activists on the other side of the fight, first as an observer at a Kwame Ture speech (Corey Hawkins, electrifying in his single scene) and then for real, forging a romantic connection with Patrice (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Laura Harrier) while trying to keep his disqualifying “pig” occupation a secret.
In one scene the pair have a conversation about W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness” — that black people in America have to simultaneously keep two seemingly conflicting identities in their minds. Add in Stallworth’s role as a mistrusted police officer, and that may be a bridge too far; Lee doesn’t (and wouldn’t) cast the CSPD writ large as the heroes of this story, but he lets Stallworth live in the tension of working for an institution willing to defang the KKK while also letting numerous “bad apples” in their own ranks walk free. One of Stallworth’s partners at first shrugs it off: “Right or wrong, we stick together.” Stallworth responds “That reminds me of another group,” and then the sound of gunfire serves as our scene transition. Again, Spike Lee is nothing if unsubtle.
John David Washington gives a star-making performance for the same director who gave his father his first Best Actor-nominated role — as Malcolm X, 25 years ago. The younger Washington shares some of Denzel’s mannerisms and certainly his command of the screen, but there’s a slyness running underneath it all — he’s playing a man who would rather rebuild the system from the inside than rage against it from without, and can only do that if he’s always the most charismatic man in the room. Meanwhile, Flip is only the latest in fascinating career choices from Adam Driver, who is now in the rarefied air of “actors I’ll watch in anything.” His arc here is smaller but no less profound, as he moves from seeing the operation as just a job to an opportunity to re-engage with his own Jewish heritage.
Topher Grace is also terrific as the unsettlingly polite David “America First” Duke, which must have been a terrifying assignment. He not only serves as the punchline to the film’s biggest laugh, but also its most shiver-inducing moment — a moment that tells us early on that Lee is pulling no punches in this story of “corn-fed American terrorism.” When Stallworth emphatically states that “America would never elect someone like David Duke for President of the United States,” I heard a drawn-out, half-laughing “Sheeeeeeiiiiit!” from someone farther down my row. But at the film’s denouement, which includes footage of tiki torches and a certain Presidential address from just one year ago, there was only a sorrowful silence.