Spike Lee is back with one of the best films of his career. His “BlacKKKlansman,” is a riveting and suspenseful take on white racism, and even though taking place during the 1970s and the Vietnam War, it is brought menacingly up to date. Lee is refreshingly creative in how he pulls together a story based on actual events, then tops it with clips that reference the racism at Charlottesville, Va., and President Trump’s scandalous equating of the racists and protestors.
The screenplay, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee, is based on the book by Ron Stallworth. The story is rooted in the strange achievement by an African-American cop, Stallworth, who working within the Colorado Springs police force goes undercover to join and expose the Klu Klux Klan’s local chapter. The twist is that Stallworth connects via phone but a doubling white co-cop is the one who actually presents himself in person to the Klan.
Stallworth, the first to break the racial barrier in the Colorado Springs police department, is played with pride and guts by John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington), topped with a dominant Afro. His white stand-in, the Jewish Flip Zimmerman, is played by the excellent Adam Driver. With Zimmerman being Jewish, Lee uses the situation to link the attacks of hate groups against Jews as well as African-Americans. The hate speech is blunt all around with plenty of use of the N word and canards such as holocaust denial and Jews ruling the world. Lee really goes on the attack.
The film bluntly displays Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a virulent commentator making a video of his racist denunciations and proclaiming the need to take America back as a pure Aryan race. By also using the mass wounded soldier scene from “Gone With the Wind,” Lee evokes the Civil War, and by interspersing clips from D. W. Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation, ” he further ties the film to the history of slavery and hatred of African-Americans. At a later and especially ugly KKK meeting, “The Birth of a Nation,” surfaces again as the members raucously shout praise at the glorification of the KKK and cheer on hooded riders in the film’s racist portrayal of white womanhood needing protection from the vicious depiction of alleged black rapists.
As one might expect, there is the danger of the infiltrators being exposed, and there are suspicions aroused in the KKK chapter, which goes by the more innocuous name of The Organization. Its members are portrayed as a rather dim-witted lot, but nonetheless dangerous in their dedication to racism and their plan to stage a bombing.
Lee mines humor from the situation with the interaction on the phone between Stallworth and the racist leader David Duke, played with restrained menace by Topher Grace. It is also funny when Police Chief Bridges (sternly enacted Robert John Burke) designates Stallworth, still unknown as the interloper, to guard Duke when he arrives to make a speech in Colorado Springs. That meeting is counterpointed with Harry Belafonte, who as himself addresses college students and recounts a horrendous past lynching that influences his life.
The complex film also contains a relationship between Stallworth and a young Angela Davis-type college student leader, Patrice Dumas, played with black power commitment by Laura Harrier, who also sports a huge Afro. Infiltrating a college meeting and wearing a wire is Stallworth’s first undercover assignment as he attends and records the militant gathering mesmerizingly addressed by guest speaker Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name taken by Stokely Carmichael. Stallworth has to go through with it to burnish his credentials. He also comes on to Dumas In pursuit of a relationship. She hates cops, considering them all pigs. When, after his act of heroism in attempting to save her life, he confesses that he is a cop, although she has warm feelings for him personally, his being a cop is a romantic deal-breaker for her.
After a film loaded with the menace of racism, Lee inserts clips of the racist rally at Charlottesville, Va., and the destruction that occurred, including the killing of a young woman, paid tribute in the film. Lee interjects racist comments by the real David Duke and the now-famous obnoxious statement by Trump. The connective update is chilling in its message that racism is still a clear and present danger, including by the current president of the United States.
Lee’s dynamic film grips one’s attention, and he is masterly at mixing all of the elements into one overwhelming message. The story itself is amazing because it is such an unlikely cop saga, and yet it is based on what actually is said to have happened. Add “BlacKKKlansmen” to your must-see list of films among the best this year. A Focus Features release. Reviewed August 10, 2018.