One year after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Spike Lee is here with BlacKkKlansman, shedding light on our nationalist upswing through the true-to-life 1970s infiltration by two cops (one black, one Jewish) of a Colorado chapter of the KKK.
You might think this straight-up satire, if you didn’t know it’s (mostly) true. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force, convinces the local KKK leader he’s a super-racist white man ready to take his country back. Understandably, he can’t meet them in person, so he recruits fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him face to face. Yes, much of this infiltration actually happened, per the man himself. He even talked to David Duke on the phone!
This movie offers us context for the re-emergence of the KKK in national news. These frightening pockets of America have always been there. But Spike Lee doesn’t play this just for drama. His approach is ironic distance and mockery, mixing a blaxploitation vibe with grim comedy that owes a debt to the Coen brothers.
As the man of the hour, John David Washington (son of Denzel!) makes a strong leading-man debut, with an easy confidence and understated humor. When he’s not dealing with super-racists, he’s reporting to officers annoyed by his presence on the force. And he argues with his sweetheart Patrice (an interesting if underdeveloped character) whether a black man truly can change an institution from the inside. Adam Driver is equally good as Zimmerman, the white face of Stallworth, who finds himself reckoning with his Jewishness for the first time and his ability to pass in everyday life.
These questions of identity and responsibility stand out in a movie that mostly leans away from subtlety. OK, I know, how subtle can you be with the KKK? But outside of Topher Grace’s intriguingly well-mannered take on David Duke, the Klansmen lack nuance. Which is understandable; as Stallworth himself said, “they were all assholes.” Here, the members are so over-the-top, they watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to cheer on the white hoods.
Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie is the most outlandish, a boisterous Klan housewife itching to be perceived as equal to the boy’s club. The irony is, of course, lost on her. She reminded me of Sarah Paulson’s plantation wife in 12 Years a Slave, a more nuanced look at a similar woman, fully complicit in the system but still wrestling with that system’s deep-rooted misogyny.
Spike Lee has given us a movie for this moment. It’s a rallying cry to unite–against the supremacists, Unite the Right ralliers, and Donald J. Trumps of this world. But it’s also one of many voices waving the anti-Trump banner, stacking up allusions to today’s alt-right (“America first!”) to make sure we see the connections. The movie’s a mash-up of styles that, maybe, should be more outrageous (come on, it’s funny when a black cop gets a KKK membership in the mail) or go for a truer, grittier approach. It lands somewhere in the middle. Because these Klansmen are such cartoons, there’s less sense of real danger–until the real-life Charlottesville footage Lee ends the movie with.
Yet BlacKkKlansman has something essential about it, a corrective anger and a moral clarity from a director who’s chronicled race in America for the last three decades. To me, Spike Lee’s voice is most stirring in this movie’s quieter moments, when he lets us see how these two men deal with the spiritual weight of marching headfirst into the abyss.