It was only a matter of time before Spike Lee offered up a joint for the Trump era. The legendary Lee’s oeuvre is a chameleonic protest chant, shifting shape with each entry to best address the country’s racial climate. After bursting onto cinematic and political scenes with his most famous film, “Do the Right Thing,” in 1989, Spike’s spent the last 30 years asking his fellow countrymen whether we’d do the right thing in socially complex situations. He’s a provocateur—though he’s never dreamed up a title more provocative than “BlackKklansman”.
He really just had to add an extra K: Lee’s latest is based on Ron Stallworth’s novel “Black Klansman”. Stallworth was the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black officer, and despite the color of his skin, he managed to join the Ku Klux Klan in 1979 by calling them on the phone and asking for a membership. By using a white officer as a stand-in Stallworth during the KKK’s in-person meetings, Ron was able to infiltrate the racist organization for nine months. It’s a true story outrageous enough to give legs to Spike Lee’s ongoing march.
Like the best protest signs, Lee doesn’t mask his messages in subtlety. He paints his messages in broad strokes, dotting points with visual exclamations and blaring the truth through a loudspeaker—sometimes literally, as is the case with his excellent “Chi-Raq”, which begins with an emergency broadcast about gun violence. “BlackKklansman” turns that dial way down. In terms of pacing, tone, and artistic flourish, this is Spike Lee’s most relaxed movie in years. Its visual style is almost completely grounded in reality. Conversations and events unfold like they would in real life, rather than in a world struck by Lee’s surrealism.
That’s not to say “BlackKklansman” lacks his electric inspiration: the film oozes character, from the jazzy score to dialogue parsed out with political purpose. Its sense of humor is wonderfully uncomfortable as well. Otherwise, those accustomed to the grandiose declarations of Lee’s recent work will be thrown for a loop. This is a quiet, methodical, almost drawn out story—especially during the second act. The movie’s midsection forgets its lighter subplots amid a focus on the overarching narrative, dragging its feet past pertinent themes and into police procedural mode.
One overlooked subplot involves Stallworth’s relationship with an activist named Patrice. They don’t have enough scenes together, which is unfortunate for a larger reason than their unconvincing romance. Their scenes are the only moments in which “BlackKklansman” directly addresses cop-on-black violence from the perspective of an African-American civilian. Patrice speaks for every black family that’s lost a loved one to systemic racism in police brotherhoods. The rest of the movie, via woeful underdevelopment of Patrice’s character and viewpoint, favors the ‘a few bad apples’ argument—that is, the idea that racism is merely the personal problem of a few bad cops. This inability to indict the system is too easily digestible, but it’ll sit well with white people who don’t want to upset their perceived inner purity.
Where “BlackKklansman” doesn’t falter is in its opposition to pictures of the past. The film opens on a hate speech delivered in front of a projection of two movies: “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation”. Both are considered classics of cinema, and both are thoroughly racist pieces of popular art that encouraged the oppression of black Americans for decades. “The Birth of a Nation”, in particular, is quite blatant about its racism: black men are portrayed as animalistic predators of white women, the Ku Klux Klan as a group of heroic protagonists. “BlackKklansman” flips that on its head. Here, the KKK is a bunch of bumbling idiots, and black Americans are a force of strength and thoughtfulness. Spike makes the viewing of film a recurring motif, as if to say that the fourth wall never truly existed—in a political sense, all movies speak directly to you. This one’s reversing the racism of Hollywood’s past and asking you to examine what you watch.
The cast amplifies this message with precision, especially Adam Driver, who reassesses his responsibility in the war against racism as a white Jew. John David Washington is both infectious and stalwart as Stallworth. Topher Grace’s against type performance is rather noteworthy: he nails the mannerisms of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. That role was probably disturbing to research.
Depictions of racism should be disturbing, but at least audiences can also laugh at the folly of white supremacy. Though it stumbles through some vital areas, the heart of “BlackKklansman” is a confident importance that shouldn’t be missed. This laid-back Spike Lee joint is one for the times.