Film Review: BlackKkKlansman

Spike Lee and a solid cast spin a bizarre true story into searing racial satire.
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Spike Lee opens BlacKkKlansman with a sweeping shot from Gone with the Wind surveying the South’s Civil War losses, a mischievous precursor to the snippets of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that soon follow. In Griffith’s early blockbuster, the Ku Klux Klan gallop over a hilltop as heroes, white knights on noble steeds come to save America from the abject nightmare of free black folks.

The historical juxtaposition produces the desired effect. The Griffith footage is at once outrageous, instructive, hilarious and infuriating, a stew of emotions that accurately reflects the mood of 2018 and appropriately sets the tone for Lee’s sardonic cop thriller. Based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman—adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s book—maintains the opening’s tongue-in-cheek tone throughout while delving into a remarkable, unknown chapter of America’s ongoing racial drama.

John David Washington (son of Denzel) stars as Stallworth, who, in the mid-’70s, not only was the so-called Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Department, but also managed as an undercover detective to infiltrate the KKK. First making contact with Klan members over the phone, Stallworth cultivates the ruse with the invaluable aid of his white partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who plays the role of “Ron” for in-person meetings once Stallworth is brought into the fold of the hate group’s local chapter.

Accepted by eager chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold), Ron is regarded with much suspicion by Walter’s hotheaded lieutenant, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). Of course, Felix isn’t wrong to distrust Ron, which, ironically, casts Felix as a voice of some bit of reason among his racist cronies, despite the hateful rhetoric he lives by and spews vociferously.

Pääkkönen’s fearsome performance walks close to the edge of over-the-top but ultimately assists in connecting this depiction of the ’70s-era Klan to the strain of white-supremacist speech and sentiment rearing its nasty head, hooded or not, in the here and now. Hearing these fictional, historical racists preaching politics that sound, sometimes subtly, other times bluntly, like the actual words of contemporary figures like Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump produces much the same effect as the Birth of a Nation footage: It’s alarming, amusing and illuminating in equal measure.

Another connective strain is the presence in the story of David Duke, the infamous then-grand wizard of the Klan, portrayed by Topher Grace as a cheerful, suit-and-tie bigot. Duke happens to find himself ensnared as a patsy in Stallworth’s stinging masquerade, which culminates in Ron, Flip and fellow detective Jimmy (Michael Joseph Buscemi) racing to foil the organization’s plot against a local university black student union, led by Patrice (Laura Harrier). And, yes, to make matters more tense, Stallworth is semi-secretly dating black activist Patrice while very secretly pretending to be a member of the KKK.

The seams definitely show in the film’s effort to contain all the comment, comedy, horror, romance and drama, but Lee handily orchestrates the layout of the period and players. A well-chosen soundtrack and an array of convincing Afros and mop-tops keep the ’70s groove flowing. And, with editing loose enough to catch a few seemingly ad-libbed asides yet tight enough to keep the two-hour-plus train rolling, suspense builds to the inevitable collision of the multiple worlds and lives of Ron Stallworth and Flip Zimmerman.

Washington and Driver are a dynamic team, with the former capturing the nuanced physical aspects of Ron’s fluid shifts between personas and the latter registering Flip’s blood-boiling inner turmoil as a Jewish cop forced by the job to deconstruct the mindset of violent anti-Semites like Felix.

BlacKkKlansmanitself playfully deconstructs this country’s race problem from multiple angles, with a sense of humor and incisiveness clearly influenced by Lee’s collaborators, including producer Jordan Peele and the team behind the Oscar-winning 2017 satirical horror hit Get Out. As with that trenchant peek under the dark covers of black/white relations, this film, despite the fun it’s having, is laced through with the underlying horror of racism past and present. Lee even interpolates an account of the tragic 1916 lynching of black teenager Jesse Washington, a gruesome tale accompanied by a photo of the dead lad hanging, burned to a crisp, in front of a crowd of townspeople.

The movie delivers a strange, intriguing detective story, while burning racists and activists alike with jokes and jabs that remind the audience that David Duke and his ilk did not wither on the vine and die off in the 1970s. The separatists and supremacists soldier on today, still making headlines, rallying around hate, enraged and ready to run over anyone who tries to resist.

Lee ends the film with chilling footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, sad, not funny images of young men who might as well be Felix and Walter marching down city streets waving Confederate and Nazi flags, sounding the same calls to destroy everyone who isn’t them. The movie sounds its own acerbic call to wake up and pay attention to where such racist rhetoric leads, and never to forget what the dark past has taught about resisting and rising above the forces of division.