You don’t need a white critic to tell you that 2018 has been a phenomenal year for black-themed film. BlacKkKlansman, released on the anniversary of the shame of Charlottesville, continues the streak. Spike Lee’s Cannes winner is oddly merry, quite nostalgic, and an ultimately hopeful account of a black police detective’s investigation in Colorado during the late 1970s.
Few who saw Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) would forget the horror of the scene of the Klan riding out against a billboard-big full moon. His treatment of the KKK here is different: It reminds one of a caption R. Crumb affixed to a cartoon of evil cigar-smoking CEOs—“I just love drawing these guys.” It’s a thrill to have a skulking enemy out in the open. There they are, the real thing, no excuses about misspeaking or misunderstanding.
It’s the late 1970s. Rookie cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is a laconic but can-do kid who is told he’s going to be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department. After he pushes for more challenging assignments, he’s ordered undercover at the local college’s Black Student Union. There he meets the student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier of Spider-Man: Homecoming).
Noting a classified ad seeking recruits to the KKK, Stallworth makes a spontaneous prank phone call in what Sorry to Bother You describes as “the white voice.” The gang is enthusiastic to meet Ron, but naturally, he can’t actually appear in person. Ron talks his partner Flip (Adam Driver) into impersonating him at the audition with the secret organization.
Ultimately, the surveillance goes all the way to the top—to the loathsome David Duke (played by Topher Grace). Together, Ron and Flip learn the rites and the secret handshake, and discover you’re not supposed to mention the “K” word around Klansmen eager to mainstream their organization.
Flip is secular Jewish. “For you, this is a crusade,” he tells Ron. “For me, this is a job.” However, through exposure to the KKK’s Jew-hatred, Flip comes to identify his common cause with Ron. Oddly, in the real-life case this is based on, the KKK plotters were considering bombing a pair of gay bars; common cause seems to only go so far here.
Elements of the fictionalization show, as do the standard moments seen in a police drama and the reveling in blaxploitation films. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in this story, thanks to Lee’s force and thoughtfulness. The KKK members are sometimes formidable, sometimes lonely; the only one-dimensional one is a cracker imbecile played by Paul Walter Hauser as the kind of dunce who scratches his forehead with the barrel of his pistol.
Lee shows a strange bit of sympathy for one couple, Felix (Jasper PääkkÖnnen) and his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who are seen cuddling up in bed. They’re sickening racists, and yet the salt of the earth.
It’s made with mellow color by Chayse Irvin, with just the right amount of violence and scenes of big ’70s cars swaying on their shock absorbers. Lee maintains a good deal of texture to go with the discursiveness, such as Ron and Patrice’s chat about who’s better, Shaft or Superfly.
Over the years, Lee has tended to address his audience as if they were a public meeting. And yet his gambits pay off, as in a lecture by Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael, and played here by Corey Hawkins) on the self-loathing installed in black folk by white society.
Even more impressive is a visit from His Eminence, Harry Belafonte. The 90-year-old performer plays an instructor sitting in the style of rattan peacock chair that Huey Newton once immortalized, recounting the grisly details of a lynching. The point of this lecture is to mention that the vicious mob had been ginned up by a viewing of 1915’s racist sensation Birth of a Nation. One definition of double-consciousness: loving cinema while realizing it sometimes poisons people.
This is a big movie from Lee, warm and smart. It’s not essentially radical, unless the subject of self-defense is radical. For instance, it comes out in favor of supporting your local police, as long as they’re trying to hunt down the Klan. BlacKkKlansman has great spirit. Lee doesn’t wear a hood, but he’s certainly a wizard sometimes.
Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace. R; 135 mins.