It’s definitely no accident that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is hitting theaters almost exactly a year after white supremacist supporters of President Donald Trump marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting racist slogans and carrying Nazi and Confederate flags and eventually murdering a counter-protestor. Lee wants you to be thinking about the people involved in those events while he tells the story of other events that happened 40 years ago, also having to do with America’s ignorant, dangerous white nationalists and the very fine people who oppose them. And, since he has chosen to tell this story in the most immediate and vital form of truth-telling–comedy–he wants you to laugh at the idiots.
In the late 1970s, Ron Stallworth became the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Not long after, he called up the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and got himself invited to meet the group. This is where the plot of BlacKkKlansman kicks into gear, with John David Washington playing Stallworth and Adam Driver playing the white officer (here named Flip Zimmerman) who pretends to be him when meeting the klansmen face to face. Together, they infiltrate the chapter.
Lee’s films are always distinctly his own. Still, he’s channeled his style through established genres in the past, from a World War II movie (Miracle at St. Anna) to a heist movie (Inside Man). BlacKkKlansman, while remaining a Spike Lee joint to its core, is also recognizably an undercover cop movie. There’s the part where Flip has to memorize his false backstory while being wired up; there’s the one guy among the criminals (Japser Pääkkönen) who suspects Flip is not who he says he is; there’s the scenes of Stallworth tailing cars and snapping furtive surveillance photos.
Even the score, by longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, carries the hallmark of cop movies, with its guitar solos and military snare drum rolls. Yet there’s an extra layer of drama underneath the expected touches. There are deep, weighty strings that keep rushing up from somewhere down below, reminding you that this is all built on something stronger than mere trustworthy tropes. Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin follow similar patterns with lights and camera, mostly sticking to classical framing but occasionally letting loose with strokes of inspiration. In an early scene, an audience listening to a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) becomes a series of disembodied, isolated heads, black faces looking hopefully upward from a black sea. Later, when a new class of klansmen (including Flip-as-Ron) is being inducted, the camera dolly zooms faster and faster down the row, like a roller coaster gaining speed.
For the most part, though, Lee relies on the text itself (of which he is one of four credited screenwriters adapting Stallworth’s memoir) to bring the drama. BlacKkKlansman is knotty work of dialectical comedy, mining laughs from the conflict of differing ideas. Excepting those of the actual Klansmen, though, most arguments are presented sympathetically. Yet, even within the Klan, differing modes of fanaticism are recognized; Pääkkönen’s Felix froths with vitriol while chapter head Walter (Ryan Eggold) and Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) aim for the insidious sheen of respectability attempted today, as poorly as it was then, by mainstreaming monsters like Richard Spencer. Still, no form of hatred is spared Lee’s or the audience’s derision. The rest of the time, we observe an ongoing, levelheaded dialogue about whether an American police force is an inherently racist institution and, if it is or is not, whether a black policeman can be an agent of change or a compromised participant in the status quo, all while Lee maintains his control over the pacing and stakes of the story.
BlacKkKlansman may be set 40 years in the past but it’s made for the America of today. When Grace’s Duke says he hopes “for America to achieve its greatness again,” the word choice is deliberate, as is the reminder of what “America First” really means to those who shout it. These oppressors’ words aren’t Lee’s only signal flare to 2018 audiences, though. When Black Student Union leader Patrice (Laura Harrier, magnificent) says of her activism, “I can’t give it a rest,” they’re the words of a hero, not a zealot. When Ture tells his audience to, “Pick up a gun and arm yourself” against racism, the contradiction to modern white liberalism’s anti-gun messaging is intentional. When the Jewish Flip is reminded, again and again, that blacks are not the only targets of the Klan’s hate, the responsibility to fight bigotry spreads to all who love justice and equality. In an emotional and disturbing centerpiece sequence, BlacKkKlansman reminds us of another movie set decades before its release that nevertheless carried terrible power. When The Birth of a Nation hit theaters in 1915, it was so popular that it sparked the resurgence of the Klan that carries on today, a reminder that the past doesn’t fade as quickly as we’d sometimes like to think. President Woodrow Wilson allegedly said The Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning.” BlacKkKlansman strikes us with a new bolt and, hopefully, a newer, better history.