Spike Lee returns with the infamous case of the black Colorado Springs police officer who infiltrated and humiliated the Ku Klux Klan with little more than a telephone and the “right” white man. Lee filters history through his usual blend of style and frank social commentary, allowing the movie to be both comedic and dramatic as the scene requires.
We accompany Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he joins the police, trying to find a place for himself in an all-white and frequently racist institution. Every white officer he meets either sneers down at him or wants to use him for the access he has as a black man in a time when civil rights was at the tip of everyone's tongue. Inspired in spite of himself by organizer Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and local student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), Stallworth finds an opportunity to make his mark when he comes across a KKK recruitment ad in the paper.
Along with his white alter ego, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Stallworth is able to rise through the ranks of the local chapter until he is on the verge of running it. He creates a friendship with David Duke (Topher Grace), still a prominent white supremacist, and ingratiates himself to nearly everyone he “meets”. The one exception is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), a vicious true believer who never shakes his suspicions of Stallworth. Zimmerman is Jewish but was raised with little connection his heritage. His internal journey echoes Stallworth's own, as both men come to terms with what it means to be Americans and police officers amid racist institutions, open and clandestine hostilities from hate groups, and how it feels to have “skin in the game”.
The performances in the film are all exemplary, but Washington, Pääkkönen, Driver, and Grace are particularly good. All four are able to infuse their characters with multiple dimensions. Clever dialogue and furtive, fearful moments bring these men to life. Each one straddles the difficult line between character and symbol, allowing viewers to see how they stand in for contemporary struggles and identities even as the film explores their intimate lives.
Both the language of civil rights and white supremacy are presented plainly, painting an interesting picture of the gleeful and buffoonish racism of the KKK members. White supremacists of various types are often portrayed either this way or as sophisticated and highly-organized domestic terrorists. The tone here seems to be one of mockery, but with a subtle hint of what the KKK and similar groups learned from infiltration like Stallworth's. Some might think that a goofy portrayal of white supremacists undercuts the danger they pose but there's room to argue that this goofiness is accurate and supports the scary real-world unpredictability of violent bigots and fascists. After all, it's a shorter leap from white hoods to car bombs than we might want to believe.
Irony and parallelism are key to the story as the focus on “black subversives” leaves police unprepared to deal with the threat to civil order and safety that is posed by white supremacists. For most of the film's running time, Lee leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions about the parallels with contemporary America. Viewers will notice the bookends: the first is a rambling, disjointed speech by Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) that echoes the racist, sometimes coded, demagoguery often on display in American right-wing media. The second follows Stallworth's victory, as he and Patrice see a cross burning on a hill like a sign of things to come.
Both scenes reveal what Lee is trying to say with this movie, though he's never been the most subtle filmmaker and it would be hard to walk away confused about where this stands. The film uses the echo of history to sound yet another in a chorus of wake-up calls for Americans that this struggle never ended and is very much alive today.
As a final flourish of style and social commentary, the movie ends with a montage of real footage and information from recent white supremacist and neo-fascist activities, including the Charlottesville march and the murder of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer, to whom the film is dedicated. This departure from the clever, lighter tone of the film was surprising but one of the most important choices Lee made. A lot of white folks will see this movie as a distant abstraction, convincing themselves that America has moved on. Until that moment comes. Lee has never been afraid to get right in our faces and the rawness of BlacKkKlansman's ending is true to form and necessary.
Witty and gut-punching, BlacKkKlansman successfully walks a tonal tightrope to deliver an entertaining rendition of a fascinating true story.