This real-life story of a KKK infiltration marks the director’s best work in years
Walking out of BlacKkKlansman, one can’t help but feel electrified. A late-summer entry amidst the seat-shakers of the last three months, here is something deeply substantial and remarkably satisfying.
Officer Ron Stallworth was Colorado Springs’ first black police officer in 1972, and throughout the decade, he worked the Klan. Stallworth (an endlessly appealing John David Washington) wants substantial work. He’s portrayed as a guy that wants to be a little more Richard Roundtree or Ron O’Neal than the CSPD likes, but his intentions seem righteous. Stallworth knows the difference between college students listening to Stokely Carmichael and feeling a sense of pride, versus a bunch of white guys into burning crosses with an explicit bloodlust.
One day, while perusing Colorado’s Gazette Telegraph, Stallworth actually finds a recruitment number for the Klu Klux Klan. By name! Come on and join!
Stallworth, putting a little extra bit of nasal inflection on his voice and some twang for good measure, calls up a local recruiter over the phone and is called back almost immediately. Stallworth starts talking about how much he hates those blacks, and how one touched his sister’s pure alabaster skin and he just despises that. He makes these calls, mid-office, much to the astonishment of his white colleagues, and Spike never misses the absurdism of it all. (Stallworth really made these cold calls; he even used his real name by accident, because he thought it wouldn’t work.)
Eventually Ron gets to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace, never more smugly sublime). Spike nails a tone, riding between disgust and disbelief, with canted angle phone-tag,and moronic overconfidence from Duke, who ‘knows’ the difference between black and white pronunciations. We laugh in astonishment, only to weep in understanding. Stallworth quickly realizes he needs a white man; as he asserts, “with the right white man, you can do anything.” Enter Officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, doing dynamite work in an embattled key). Flip is a variant on “Chuck,” an unnamed officer from Stallworth’s book. Flip is the other side of Stallworth’s sting: Ron is the voice, Flip is the body.
Flip goes deep, joining the Colorado Klan on drinking, hunting, and homemaking jaunts. It’s not all rah-rah “white power,” right up until it becomes all too clear how desperately these white men want to exude that perceived power. Ron and Flip angle to stop an attack from a rogue sect of Klansmen, looking to reclaim America by blowing some of it up. Throughout the escalating series of operations, Flip grows more endearing to the Klan; they want more whites in the worst way. Duke asserts that it’s not about exclusion, but emboldening a more traditional American man. It’s with a knowing echo that Spike and his writing team of Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott provoke discussions. (Hint hint: this never stopped. It just reappeared with tiki torches.)
Like The Death of Stalin, it’s a fully-functioning riff on that ever-evasive thing called The Now. It goes for the gut and isn’t afraid to call bullshit on a still-alive problem, while finding a few laughs all the while. BlacKkKlansman is a well-formed and compelling work of pulp escapism.
From its seething outrage, to its quick-witted moments of mid-‘70s irony, to its buffoonish portrayal of Klansmen, the film is filled with great directional shifts. From its gaiety upfront, in the zany opening credits, to the coldly necessary closing montage, BlacKkKlansman is always fleet, capable of mining each scene for its maximum potential. Traditionally speaking, the cop stuff and period drama crackles with every diner scene, office argument, and police chase. Spike orchestrates races to stop bomb threats and tense stand-offs between cops and black communities with edge and finesse. On those qualities alone, Blackkklansman is a crackling drama, and a work of quality form. But BlacKkKlansman achieves true greatness in its left-field scenes.
Take the opening credits. Alec Baldwin shows up in a ‘50s-tinged guide to the white race that not only acts a great primer for the ideas to come, but draws upon some of Baldwin’s better instincts for exaggerated pride and ego, as seen on 30 Rock. Dr. Kennebrew is the name, and he coughs and screams for lines through utter nonsense, and it exists in a place of raw truth and courageous folly. It’s a hell of a hook. Spike’s in total control here, broadly and strongly.
Amidst the operations and intrigue, Ron finds time for a beautifully shot date. Ron and his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) walk atop a river. The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” rumbles and bumps, as the two debate the merits of social action, racial responsibilities, and the ongoing fight between Super Fly and Shaft. It out-Tarantinos Tarantino, it’s so fun.
In arguably 2018’s most potent film sequence, Harry Belafonte cameos as activist Jerome Turner, to give a speech about the terrible mob lynching of a black man. He orates to open-eared students in that raspy Belafonte voice, describing in graphic detail the abuse of a young man in 1916. You feel his pained acceptance, having witnessed this event occur as a result of public enthusiasm for The Birth of a Nation. The killing stroke, cinematically, is that Spike cross-cuts Turner’s heart-rending speech against a Klan induction ceremony, wherein the boys celebrate by watching, you guessed it, The Birth of a Nation. It’s brutal, and perhaps one of the most effective arguments to date for the evil power and needed destruction of certain pieces of art. Spike directs, cuts, and shoots the whole scene with such virtuoso skill that the shame cuts through the style.
Lee has dabbled in white perspectives before – Sal’s heated dialogues, Monty Brogan’s entitlement – but never with this level of condemnation, and it’s a fair approach. Spike plays the white Klansmen up as grotesque, and often as the targets of cheap laughs, and why not? They think lie detector tests can pinpoint Judaism. Many talk and look like the Country Bears at Disneyworld. But they’re disciplined, and they’re organized. Duke’s smug politeness is knowingly callow, and a hard reminder of how much a handsome white man can get away with.
In one of the movie’s most upsetting and provocative moments, power Klan couple Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) and Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) share a tender exchange before bed, cuddling and exchanging patter about how excited they are to finally kill black people. Spike pulls no punches, and when an organization’s sole purpose is hate, you root for Stallworth and his team. Show the KKK for what they are: people for whom there is no space in the modern world. BlacKkKlansman goes all in and quickly pulls you onto its side. Call it propaganda, but it’s absolutely on the right side of history.
Through its back channels, Spike Lee seems to have found and mastered a tone, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while from the brash artist. The serious collides with the silly. The nerve-rattling traditional elements are moved by Spike’s unpredictable hand. BlacKkKlansman is better off, in this way, serving as a work of hyper-provocative genius. (We’ve yet to scratch the surface of this film’s anxiety-inducing relevance, but it’s impossible not to see the Proud Boys and even Trump in the rhetoric of the young Klansmen.) Fear not, however: this is still a fun-as-hell Spike Lee joint. Here’s a movie with snappy action, lively dialogue, and a sense of courage in its convictions. So, begrudgingly, thanks to the racist idiots who put a hotline number in the goddamn newspaper in Colorado. We got a truly great movie out of it.