It’s surprisingly easy to forget that “BlacKkKlansman” is a Spike Lee joint. Not only does it open with an extended sequence from “Gone with the Wind” (not a Spike Lee joint), but it also spends a good amount of time parsing the fundamental dilemma of Jewish-American identity, and takes place in the snow-white hills of Colorado Springs … which in this country, is pretty much as far from Crooklyn as you can get.
Sure, the usual Lee flourishes pop up here and there — from the introductory text promising this buddy-cop biopic is “some fo’ real shit,” to the gorgeous conveyor-belt shot at the climax, and the sobering mic drop of news footage that brings things to a close — and the whole thing is kissed with his cock-eyed anger. But so much of this movie seems like it could’ve been made by anybody. It couldn’t have been — it wouldn’t have been — but it often seems that way. We’re talking a clean three-act structure, a couple of scenes that vaguely resemble car chases, and motherfucking Topher Grace.
The truth is, you just don’t expect that something called “BlacKkKlansman,” an unvarnished look back at the African-American police officer who conned his way into David Duke’s inner circle, is going to be Spike Lee’s most commercial project since “Inside Man” in 2006. Hell, this thing is so mainstream it feels like the start of a franchise. And yet, that mass appeal is a huge part of what makes this funny and righteously furious American film so powerful. Lee might paint with a broad brush, but he makes damn sure that every one of his targets is tagged with at least a little splotch of red. And he makes damn sure that every one of us can see it so clearly that it will never wash off.
“BlacKkKlansman” rewinds the clock back to the early ’70s, a time when the Vietnam War was raging, caller ID had yet to be invented, and way too many other things were the same as they are now. When Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, of the Denzel Washingtons) rolls up to the Colorado Springs Police Department, he’s the first black cop they’ve ever had on the force. And his blackness is a bit dissonant for many of his very white (and very sheltered) new co-workers. On the one hand, he’s got a big afro. On the other, he talks like a bible salesman.
Sick of working in the records office and eager to earn the respect of his peers, Ron volunteers for undercover work. He says he’s got a “niche.” Lucky for him, a perfect opportunity for some light intel work falls into his lap: Kwame Ture (a commanding Corey Hawkins) is giving a speech for the black student union, and Ron is just the guy to slip in and read the room unnoticed. Not only does he get the job done, but he also gets to meet-cute with a beautiful and impassioned activist named Patrice Dumas (Spider-Man’s recent love interest, Laura Harrier).
But there are too many diehard racists on the force — too many angry white men who like to kill black kids for sport. So Ron tries to move things along. On the spur of the moment, he opens the phone book, picks up the receiver, and dials the local chapter of the KKK. He tells them that he’s interested in becoming a member; he uses his real name (rookie mistake). The next thing Ron knows, he’s got a blind date with a real-life White Nationalist. And, um, that’s probably not going to be much of a love connection. Fortunately, our quick-thinking hero has a plan: He’s going to pull a “Cyrando de Bergerac” and send a detective named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to wear a wire and “play” Ron Stallworth in person. Never mind that Flip is Jewish — even he needs to be reminded of that. Besides, he can pass.
Just like that, they’re off to the races. Flip gets in tight with the brotherhood, while Ron listens in from a nearby car. The Colorado Springs chapter of “The Organization” is represented by a cartoonish trio of incompetents (Ryan Eggold as the leader, Jasper Pääkkönen as the suspicious sociopath, and “I, Tonya” breakout Paul Walter Hauser as the mouth-breathing source of extra comic relief). The film makes fun of them from its modest start to its explosive finish, and yet — strange as it may seem — there’s always something irreducibly terrifying about a well-armed militia that’s hellbent on ethnic cleansing.
Always something, but sometimes not enough. Lee, whose films are not exactly known for their tonal consistency, often struggles to reconcile the dark comedy of these scenes with the sheer darkness that surrounds them. At times, the absurdity of the KKK members — and one of their wives — is so extreme that it undercuts the urgency of the threat they pose. And that’s before Stallworth connects with the hate group’s then-leader, an eminently punchable and regrettably familiar weasel named David Duke (unfortunately for Topher Grace, the role that he was born to play).
But the mocking phone calls between Ron and the Grand Wizard aren’t only there so that we can laugh at Duke as he swears that he can tell the difference between black and white people based on the sound of their voice. They also serve a second, and more critical function, as Lee’s script — based on Stallworth’s memoir, and co-written by three other writers — uses their duality as a vehicle to explore the quest for pluralism at the heart of this story. Is it truly possible for a black American to be both of those things at once? Is it possible for a Jew? Wasn’t the fundamental promise of this country that we could all be together ourselves?
It’s hard to imagine a more lucid expression of that seemingly irreconcilable conflict than the sequence in which Ron — the real Ron — is assigned to protect Duke when he comes to town. In a film where Washington is too often stuck behind a desk, putting on his phone voice and biting his tongue, this strange encounter allows the actor to have an out-of-body experience; he’s othered and included at the same time, twisting Duke’s own ignorance against him. It’s all conveyed through the suspense of a ’70s cop thriller (and sometimes even the swagger of blaxploitation), and Washington has a blast with every moment of it.
Driver eventually does as well, though his character spends most of the movie in harm’s way. Unleashing the pent-up testosterone that percolated beneath his roles in “Girls” and “Star Wars,” Driver leans into every one of the self-loathing epithets that Flip uses as a disguise. He does a brilliant job of registering the toll that it takes, every anti-semitic jab pushing him closer to a real confrontation with the Jewish identity that he’s always kept like a half-forgotten secret.
It’s very unexpected (and exceedingly rare) to see a film that reckons with the dormant feelings — the pride, shame, tradition, history, and otherness — of being a “passing” Jew in White America, let alone a film that clarifies that reflects the Jewish-American and African-American experiences against each other in order to clarify them both.
While “BlacKkKlansman” only has so much time to dwell on such things as it barrels along the predictable trajectory of a superhero origin saga, each of Lee’s hyper-political asides speaks to the institutional anxieties at the heart of this story. In fact, Ron and Patrice spend most of their scenes together addressing the issue head-on: Is it possible to change the system from the inside if the people in power don’t want the system to change?
David Duke found a way to crack it, and he drops enough groan-worthy dramatic irony to make sure we recognize that (he foams at the mouth about “America first,” and even gives a little speech about inserting a White Nationalist into the Oval Office one day). Patrice isn’t convinced that it’s a workable solution for an oppressed people, but if the Colorado Springs Police Department can turn things around on their own streets — if Ron can somehow reconcile being a black cop, and Flip a white Jew — then we can be the system. Quoth Hillel the Elder: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”
Far more frightening than it is funny (especially after Lee connects the dots from Colorado Springs to Charlottesville), “BlacKkKlansman” packages such weighty and ultra-relevant subjects into the form of a wildly uneven but consistently entertaining night at the movies. It’s as broad as America is wide, but that’s as broad as it needs to be. After all, “The Birth of a Nation” was a blockbuster. It was history written with lightning. “BlaKkKlansman” is a deafening roll of the thunder we’ve been waiting for ever since.
“BlacKkKlansman” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on August 10.