Spike Lee is mad, y’all.
More than in the sense that Lee’s films are usually described as “angry”—which, in most cases, is far too reductive to actually mean anything—BlacKkKlansman is angry. This is a film from a man ready to fight, a man who’s looked at the state of the world today and thrown his hands up—not in frustration but in preparedness, like a boxer in the ring. Lee has had it, and BlacKkKlansman is his call to arms.
Whether coincidence or not, it also happens to be his best film in years.
While Lee has never precisely been a director who gave a fuck about what anyone had to say about his work, it’s been hard to see his general decline in the years since he released 25th Hour. The sixteen years since that film’s release has seen a series of stumbles by the director, with several releases (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Chi-raq) doing little to push the needle of his legacy forward. Though largely cemented as a legend with Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, and Malcolm X, it’s still been difficult to watch Lee bounce around in the latter half of his career.
His anger at the state of the world might have a lot to do with it, but it’s more likely that Lee finally has something to say. What he has to say is, yes, very angry, but he’s channeled his anger into a work of high artistic merit that captures the vigor of his early career and reignites the flames of his passions. Having that back is a breath of fresh air amidst a miasma of toxicity, and it’s oh so sweet.
As the opening title card tell us, “Dis joint is based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” Lee has always been a director who excels at telling true stories, and BlacKkKlansman is another win for his biographical works. It follows the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop in Colorado Springs. While facing difficulties with a police force who doesn’t want him there—he is, at first, relegated to the evidence room—he soon proves himself a worthy asset to the force and is assigned to an undercover operations group. There, he responds to an ad in the newspaper placed by the KKK and, along with his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is able to become a card carrying member of the white nationalist terrorist organization.
At the same time, Lee explores some of the finer nuances of being black in America. Stallworth’s tale is balanced with the growing black power movement of the 70s, and soon Ron finds himself involved romantically with movement organizer Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). One part investigative thriller and one part exploration of identity, BlacKkKlansman offers Lee the chance to delve into the racial divide in his most meaningful film in decades.
Billed and marketed as sort of comedy, the film does have more than a few laugh out loud hilarious moments. That doesn’t really tell the whole picture, however. This is less a comedy than it is a film that isn’t afraid to turn away from comedic moments. Though, yes, there are moments of hilarity, the subject matter is serious, and Lee doesn’t lean away from that.
Lee uses Stallworth’s story, set in the 70s though it might be, to examine the issues of today. BlacKkKlansman is filled with wry references about the American political culture today as Stallworth and Dumas look forward to a better tomorrow, one we know doesn’t exist. In one scene, someone explains the danger of David Duke (played here by Topher Grace) making white nationalism safer than it used to be. It’s opined that one day America might elect someone with David Duke’s beliefs and tendencies. “That’ll never happen,” is the response. And yet we know it did.
Lee’s outrage stems from the past belief that we’d come so far only to see ourselves fall so far back in present days. In that way, the film serves as a reminder to all of us of the tainted nature of our history that still threatens to bubble up and overtake us. It’s a reminder that we can’t turn our back on the lessons of the past, that we can’t escape our previous sins.
Washington balances this narrative tight rope beautifully, carrying the weight of the importance of Stallworth’s actions and life on his shoulders. He and Driver make a fantastic team, as do he and Harrier. Grace, meanwhile, captures the terrifying charm of Duke and his brand of white nationalist terrorism in what might be the performance of his career.
BlacKkKlansman is a hard film to watch at times, but Lee and his cast have managed to weave it into captivating magic that never shies away from its importance of relevance. Yes, it’s political. Yes, it will make you mad. No, it doesn’t care if you don’t agree with it. Lee is throwing up a both a rallying cry and a cry for help. It is a reminder and it is a warning. Perhaps it’s time that paid attention.
BlacKkKlansman is now playing in theaters everywhere.