Spike Lee movies often offer a mixed bag for me. Some are amazing, though many crumble under the weight of his proselytizing. His sermons many times push character development and logic to the background, which is unfortunate since I generally support the points he’s trying to make. While BlackKklansman is upper-tier Lee, it does undo a lot of its good will in the closing moments, which emphasize allusions and connections that didn’t need to be emphasized. Still, the story at the heart of the film is a bold, vexing, often humorous, ride that works on nearly every level.
Based on the story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who in the 70s successfully infiltrated the local KKK chapter, with the help of his white (but also Jewish) co-worker. This is the second movie in so many months that relies on its black protagonist using his white voice, and its used much less absurdly here than in “Sorry to Bother You.” Once Stallworth, an ambitious, dedicated officer played by John David Washington (son of Denzel, a frequent collaborator of Lee’s, most notably as the titular Malcolm X), makes contact with the local chapter of the notorious hate group, he enlists fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the white face to his white voice. Zimmerman buddies up with the band of miscreants led by the enigmatic Walter (Ryan Eggold) and batshit psycho Felix (Jasper Paakkonen).
As Zimmerman gets in deeper with the local KKK, shooting at racist placards and enjoying downhome cooking by Felix’ racist wife (Ashlie Atkinson), Stallworth is ingratiating himself to KKK leader David Duke (yes, that one, played by an appropriately smarmy Topher Grace) and spending time with collegiate activist Patrice (Laura Harrier, almost unrecognizable under her massive afro), who hates the police (whom she’ll only refer to as “pigs”) almost as much as the Klan hates her.
As dark as the subject matter is, there is a lot of humor throughout, which keeps the movie from being too didactic. While there are obvious and justifiable allusions to our current administration (Duke fumbles through the idea of America being great again, a statement as easy as it is to believe he feels that way, is something he doubtfully ever said), the film mostly focuses on the craziness of Stallworth’s story and shines a light on the troublesome relationship between African Americans and the police, a problem that has obviously advanced very little in subsequent decades.
Lee’s filmic style is impressive here, with many of the scenes having strong familiarity with the visual approach of many 70s films. As cars zip down the street, it just looks and feels like a part of that decade, and not a modern-day reflection on it. My biggest quibble is with (minor spoiler alert) the use of real-life footage of our president and present-day David Duke, drawing lines between the messages in the movie and our unfortunate administration. They are connections that don’t need to be made, the movie already successfully handled that, and it just feels a bit pandering and heavy-handed, as well-intentioned and appropriate as it may be. Despite that, the movie is a thoughtful and enjoyable excursion highlighting the racial tensions that America has never resolved, but merely pushed deeper.
My Grade – B+