Spike Lee's Klan-infiltration period piece is a high-energy filleting of today's racially torn America.
If you’ve been pining for the return of the fiery, political Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, good news: BlacKkKlansman is the director working at his electrifying best. Maybe the optimism of the Obama era robbed him of some of that righteous fury (which would be one explanation for his limp Oldboy remake), or maybe middle age mellowed him; either way, Trump’s America—Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter and everything else—has brought the old mojo flooding back. Veering from a blaxploitation spoof to an undercover thriller and ending with a no-punches-pulled real-life coda, BlacKkKlansman is riotously fun one minute, savagely biting the next.
The story, as the opening credits declare, is based on some “fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”—the kind that’s hard to believe actually happened in early ’70s Colorado, yet it’s all true. Black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) joins the local force, where he’s warned that he’ll have to “take a lot of guff.” Sure enough, the guff comes thick and fast as he’s exiled to the storage room and harassed by a racist colleague.
Spotting an ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and taking the initiative, Ron phones the “Organization” (as they vaguely describe themselves), clears his throat and claims to be a vitriolic white supremacist, thus setting in motion the most unlikely undercover operation in law-enforcement history. His first thrill of contact with the enemy is only slightly diminished by his belated realization that he’s used his real name on the phone. Cue hysterical laughter from his fellow cops.
Of course, Ron can’t meet the Klansmen in person, so in steps fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, even more deadpan than usual) to handle the face-to-face stuff. The fact that Flip is Jewish should increase the risk, but this cadre of racists is so dim, only Jasper Pääkkönen’s paranoid redneck comes close to finding him out. Everything soon leads to Topher Grace’s oily David Duke, giving Lee the chance to tug on the film’s links to modern-day America. The Klan are a bunch of clowns, sure, but Lee never lets us forget that they’re not hiding behind aliases or unlisted numbers—they’re marching in the streets.
If a few tonal lurches make BlacKkKlansman a touch uneven, and if a romantic subplot with Laura Harrier’s student radical doesn’t quite land, its comic beats give a flavor of what Spike Lee’s Naked Gun might look like (awesome, by the way), and that impassioned, earnest side of the director—well supported by his longtime composer Terence Blanchard—is never far from the surface. Ron’s first undercover operation at a Black Panther rally has individual faces backlit in rapt attention. It’s one of many powerful cinematic moments in a movie that has the scrappy, rough-around-the-edges feel of a filmmaker on fire.
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