The assertive title BlacKkKlansman, under the well-known banner of “a Spike Lee joint,” speaks volumes as to what Lee's latest is all about. And for the first time in a while, the director doesn't disappoint. 2018 has been a remarkable year for black auteurs, and the man who inspired so many of them has bounced back with his best film in ages.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has become the first black detective in Colorado Springs. As such, he's assigned to infiltrate a civil rights rally, which leads to a romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and a casual attempt to penetrate the Ku Klux Klan that becomes very real. Because Stallworth accidentally used his real name over the phone—and because a black man wouldn't make the KKK cut—Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) assumes the role of the Klan-friendly in-person Stallworth, and the two begin working together to stop a violent attack.
Spike can be a haphazard filmmaker; his style and aggression either fill the voids in his work or accentuate his flaws. Luckily, this is very much the former; any plot holes or odd turns are swept away by a forward propulsion that makes BlacKkKlansman feel very active and alive. It's also surprisingly humorous; as in many of Lee's films, there's an initial jovialness to the proceedings that gets abruptly swept away as we dig deeper. Everything is clever and fun, until shit gets real.
This doesn't lend itself to tension, at least not in the traditional cinematic sense. Despite having an undercover cops story at his disposal, Lee doesn't put Stallworth or Zimmerman in sticky situations that seem a centimeter from being upended. But he does capture tension in a broader, more foreboding way, Stallworth peering into a KKK meeting to see a cheer-filled screening of Birth of a Nation reminds us that, even if he's victorious in this particular battle, the hate being spewed his way knows no bounds.
Much like his famous father Denzel, Washington can say a lot without saying anything at all. This is perfect for Stallworth, a man stuck between two worlds. He's neither hip nor intense enough for the Black Power movement, and being a black cop limits your upward mobility. So he's often silent, or comes across like he's faking or holding something back; either way, Washington projects the perfect mix of coolness and uncertainty.
It helps that he's teamed with Driver, who continues his streak of terrific choices since becoming Kylo Ren. There's not a lot of backstory to Flip; I actually didn't know his name was Flip Zimmerman until over an hour in. But that goes hand-in-hand with being the false Stallworth, and we do get a few token moments of Zimmerman realizing that just because his Jewishness is easier to hide than Stallworth's blackness doesn't make the disgust toward it any less palpable. Even if those tidbits aren't very fleshed out, Driver still hits them out of the park.
And we haven't even discussed Topher Grace! His scenes as Grand Wizard David Duke are few and far between, but Grace's underwhelming look and feel fits perfectly into the ha-ha side of things. And then when he has to summon genuine disgust and menace, it's loud and clear and even a little threatening. Duke is clearly not a physical threat, but through Grace you understand that his beliefs and fervent commitment to the cause are enough to make up for it.
Lee and his screenwriters—the team of Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, along with Lee himself and Kevin Willmott—do dip into easy wins on occasion. A thrown-together “sting” that busts a racist cop near the end of the movie is cheap and unearned. Stallworth's rise from evidence room to lead investigator is confusingly abrupt. And the KKK eventually “discovering” that the undercover Zimmerman is a cop serves zero purpose; the story and that scene both move on with no real ramifications. Again, plot and patience and connecting the dots are not always Spike's specialty.
But one thing he clearly understands is where BlacKkKlansman fits into the cultural landscape. We open on shots of the Civil War wounded and an educational film of sorts that stars Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard (Alec Baldwin), a fictional physician who explains why white people are better than black people. And we close on footage from the Charlottesville protests, where Lee rams home that the KKK members of the 1970s are now in chinos and polo shirts. Everything may be cyclical, but Spike is not going to let this particular moment slip by without making us soak in the reality of the situation. For years cinema has been used to normalize reinforce oppression, but Lee has the mic now. And he's not letting go.