Spike Lee Is at His Searing Best With BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee's white-hot genre mash-up BlacKkKlansman initiates its course in the early 1970s. It's a time “marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation,” according to an unnamed race theorist in the opening sequence (he’s played with palpable animosity by Alec Baldwin). In Colorado Springs, he continues, a sect of “true, white Americans” sense a movement brewing among black “radicals” and Jews who they feel have “pressured their great way of life.” The proto-MAGA sentiment is but a backdrop, one of many ways Lee's latest joint teases out the resonances between then and now. The parallels aren't simply the work of a fabulist, though; the playfully urgent film is inspired by real events—as Lee styles it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”.
Elsewhere in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is at a crossroads. The first black officer on the Colorado Springs Police Force, he's overcome the department's internal racism to attain the rank of a detective, but an assignment has left him with mixed allegiances, torn between his work and the world. It’s not until he comes across an ad in the paper from the Ku Klux Klan that it all clicks—call them, and pretend to be white.
With a jazzman’s knack for grandiosity, one that’s more Charlie Parker bebop than Miles Davis cool, Lee understands tone better than most filmmakers of his generation. Over his career, he has found ways to bring sound and color into symmetry as well as discord, and to derive power from both. He’s got an appetite for climax, and has matured into a shameless, incessant provocateur—a skill that has anchored some his best works, from Do the Right Thing to Malcolm X to When The Levees Broke, his 2006 documentary about the havoc Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans. Produced by Jordan Peele, who first brought the concept to Lee, BlacKkKlansman is similarly ambitious and gripping for how it illustrates its core statement: revealing just how identity is weaponized for and against us.
Over time, Ron learns that KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, with a perfectly tuned small-town innocence) wants to “sell hate” and cleanse the nation under issues of affirmative action, immigration, and black radicalism. In one of their earliest conversations, Duke praises Ron for speaking “the King’s English” and not “jive.” The beauty here is the distance, or lack thereof, between Ron’s over-the-phone voice versus his in-person voice. Unlike the broadness of Sorry to Bother You’s “white voice” play, Stallworth’s two tongues don’t clash as much as someone like Duke expects. It’s a critique made all the more searing by Washington’s subtlety—the notion of “you’re so articulate” is turned on its head and ground into ash. For Washington’s Ron Stallworth, it’s not a matter of code-switching, but one of ownership: the King’s English is his too.
But a voice can’t infiltrate the KKK without a body, and proxy comes by way of Stallworth's veteran colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who begins to attend Klan meetings as Stallworth. The problem is, Zimmerman is Jewish, which one member begins to suspect. While Flip wasn’t raised in a devout household and doesn’t practice Judaism, the mounting threat has brought his Jewishness front of mind. “I never thought about it before,” he confesses to Ron, but now “I’m thinking about it all the time.” Lee is a master puppeteer when it comes to having his characters engage the battleground of selfhood—how they are sharpened by it, trapped by it, made new by it.
“Infiltrate Hate” is the film’s tagline, and it bears the same deceptive fragrance of 2018: a time of history-rattling infringements against the powerless. Politically, the film works to map the trajectory to our current predicament. Donald Trump. Charlottesville. The spread of poisonous racial dogmas masked in slogans like “America First.” The film is largely about the influence, and infection, of propaganda into the American center, underlying how charlatan, racist figures commandeer authority with a serpent’s fang. Footage from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature Birth of a Nation pulse throughout the two-hour flick, and the friction of Lee’s message against Griffith’s culminates into a movie of dense and difficult candor. As a trio of Klan members set out to bomb local Black Student Union members, the film crackles and scintillates, and only briefly sputters—but never once does it lose the fire of its drive.
With heat and purpose, BlacKkKlansman manifests as Lee’s most triumphant feature since 2006’s Inside Man. It doesn't just pack the visual audacity of a modern Blaxploitation epic, but—with Lee’s tongue-slick message of overthrowing The Man—the framework as well. The film moves with patience until, just as you’ve settled into Colorado’s cinematic landscape, catapults to a climactic end. Footage from 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia occupy the film’s closing scenes (it’s no coincidence that Lee is releasing the movie on its anniversary). Sitting in the theater, I again found myself struck by the horror of the images. And in this, a film about propaganda becomes a piece of potent propaganda itself. Only it’s up to you which message you choose to hear.