Always one to come out swinging with a red-hot ham fist when an icy, velvet touch might serve him better, director Spike Lee slams out his angriest, most in-your-face, powerful, ambitious, frustrating and funniest movie in years with BlacKkKlansman. Based on the 2014 book by Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs' first African-American police officer and detective, Lee’s screen version is part deadpan comedic police procedural, part seething polemic, part satire of white privilege and complacency.
Lee’s sad, furious conclusion is that the racial divide of that earlier era has, four decades later, resurfaced right under our noses, particularly with the rise of American hate groups, nationalism and white supremacists. To underscore that reality, Lee includes a harrowing sequence of news footage from the Charlottesville, Va., white-nationalist march, with Trump infamously blaming “both sides” for the domestic terrorist attack that ended the life of counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer.
From there, the movie—rich with jaunty, knowing visual allusions and salutes to blaxploitation cinema, and graced with a killer, retro-ish Terence Blanchard score—follows Stallworth, wearing a wire to a meeting of the Colorado College Black Student Union. He's hoping to sniff out whether charismatic leader Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) is ramping up his followers toward violence. His fellow cops warn him, “They say he’s a damn good speaker, so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good Negroes of Colorado Springs.”
Like it or not, BlacKkKlansman is urgent moviemaking, impossible to ignore.
It turns out the local KKK members, yokels steeped in slurs, ignorance and self-congratulation, are actively plotting against the BSU. Oddest of all, Stallworth actually gets pals-y in an ongoing telephone relationship with smug, oily white supremacist and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), almost buffoonish in his racism. He says, “It’s time for America to show its … greatness—again.” It may be heavy-handed, but it works. Much like Stallworth himself, who struggles with his own shifting identity—how can he reconcile being a good cop with his evolution as a politically aware black man?—the movie shifts tonally almost from moment to moment. It’s a disorienting trick, but often, it pays off.
Lee presents Stallworth as a Shaft-like figure, meting out racial vengeance that's bound to stir big, complex emotions. And when Lee’s punches land, they land hard. In one sequence, Harry Belafonte graces the screen as an activist, telling young guns about the 1916 lynching in Waco, Texas, of Jessie Washington, a horror he personally witnessed. It’s a devastating moment in a messy, impassioned movie filled with audacious moments. Like it or not, BlacKkKlansman is urgent moviemaking, impossible to ignore.
- Timely and fiery, this is Spike Lee's most important and memorable film in years
- Subtlety? Who needs subtlety?