This is what happens when two Spike Lee’s collide, one of the mainstream (Inside Man, Malcolm X, 25th Hour) and one of the indie (Chi-Raq, Pass Over), both filled with righteous anger and a desire to entertain, through a prism that may turn some off. There’s even an element of embracing what some call one of his bigger missteps, Bamboozled. For all the commercial avenues taken in BlacKkKlansman, this is a film with a message. And while it may be plain as day, that doesn’t make it any less worth shouting. As Lee would have you remember, it’s once you become ambivalent to the things being shouted, the real trouble starts. With that focus he puts together one of the biggest surprises of the year, something we all should have seen coming.
If for some reason it was missed in any of the trailers, BlacKkKlansman reminds viewers from the start that it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” In 1979’s Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) applied to be the citiy’s first Black police officer. Wanting to move up through the ranks as quickly as possible, he moves to the undercover division and launches a plan to bring down the local chapter of the KKK. While juggling sending a proxy to meetings and chatting up David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone, he also starts a relationship with local black activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier).
Lee isn’t subtle in his messages. He’s never been. A child can easily see the parallels he’s making. That doesn’t make it any less potent, his weapons any less dull. Going this route also lets him explore some topics that may surprise . While Washington’s Stallworth is undeniably the star, Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman is equally important. As the Jewish detective who plays Ron’s “white counterpart” with the KKK, he’s forced to confront an aspect of his life he’s largely let sit by the wayside’ as Stallworth puts it, “passing for white.” It’s an interesting angle most films wouldn’t give credence to, further enhancing Lee’s film in the process.
Like Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), the former Black Panther who makes speech to the local Black student union, Lee knows this is his pulpit. a captive, curious audience before him. It would be rude if he didn’t take advantage of the situation. So he goes for broke, at many opportunities, letting his trademark flourishes overtake scenes. At the same time, these are the beats that threaten to lose the more average moviegoer. Yet, they’re essential to BlacKkKlansman‘s success. Any time these passages come into play, it feels like Lee pleading, “watch this, hear this, it’s important.” In return, he rewards the audience with some of the funniest scenes of any film this year.
What problems eventually crop up are few and far between, but nevertheless keep this from being an absolute scorcher. It should come as no surprise this is caused partially due to the two Lee’s butting heads. The commercial side wins out more often than the artist, which leads to a second half that drags ever so slightly, by embracing conventionality. This also causes his dalliances to seem more apparent or to teeter on becoming a distraction. Instead, they give BlacKkKlansman a second focus. The ability to juggle shifting tones may seem disorienting, but it’s a masterclass in self confidence.
The victories within BlacKkKlansman are small and fleeting, casting mere pebbles at a larger evil. Whatever battle Stallworth believes he’s fighting is just that, a battle. Outside his view, the war rages on, but he can find a level of contentment in knowing he’s doing something. The same goes for Lee’s battle in exploring the past, to show how little has changed today. As on-the-nose as it may be, it’s nonetheless powerful. If anyone isn’t sure this is the director’s purpose, his stamp in the coda makes it abundantly clear. As much as we may like to constantly tell ourselves we’ve come to change, we are still a long way off.
While many other directors could have made a film about Ron Stallworth, only Spike Lee could have made BlacKkKlansman. He places the right care onto a ridiculously stranger-than-fiction story and not only makes it palatable, but conveys many of his normal staples through an artistic lens that feels somehow more natural here (including a blisteringly wild opening). At the same time, this is sure to turn off more than a fare share of viewers. Doing so is to miss part of Lee’s, and by extension co-writer Kevin Willmott’s, vision. The mainstream appeal of the film is there to allow him to speak to a larger audience and he goes hog wild. Make no mistake about it, Spike Lee is one of the greatest directors of his generation and BlacKkKlansman shows he has no intention of slowing him down. That’s something we should all be thankful for.