There’s no reason on this earth why a movie called “BlacKkKlansman” should not be fantastic. The title is fascinating (and given one more “k” than its source material for added effect); the premise is the kind of mixture of ridiculous and riveting that makes you stay up all night researching the whole damn story; the cast is excellent and; the director seems to be in his best, most radical form in decades. By the time the credits roll you’ll realize this movie lives up to everything you’re likely to hear about it, making it very much must-see viewing. What makes this gripping, tense, often hilarious, thunderous condemnation of the current Trump political atmosphere all the more cheer-worthy is the fact that Spike Lee has proven why he’s still the f**king man.
Based on some “fo real, fo real shit,” the movie follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police department. Brought in to help diversify the department, Washington is stuck working in the records room fetching papers for cops who have no problem speaking down to him or viewing him as inferior (in short, being racist as shit). He soon puts himself forward and begs to go undercover so he can do some real good in the community, which is just the first example of Stallworth proving to be great at talking people into things. Washington, the son of famous Oscar-winning actor Denzel (no need to include the “Washington”) exhibits a lot of the traits his own father utilizes to great effect. He’s poised, composed, direct, confident, charming when he needs to be and always in total command of the situation. He’s exactly what Stallworth needs to be and easily sells the fact he’s the smartest guy in the room.
His first assignment is to appease the demands of his paranoid, insensitive superiors who ask him to investigate a rally with Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, played with conviction by Corey Hawkins) as the main speaker, as they want to make sure the young, black crowd doesn’t get “too worked up.” Any director approaching this movie simply to give this biographical tale the big screen treatment wouldn’t have given it the passion or life Lee does. He shows that as Ture is speaking with a fervor that the crowd is listening with unblinking eyes. He repeatedly shifts focus from Ture to the many other faces in the crowd, young black men, and women listening to the man who says they deserve to be loved as they are. This is a key moment for Stallworth, but Lee wants us every audience member to hear the message too.
Stallworth, seemingly with more vigor to take on big players, follows this up by calling the Ku Klux Klan, his plan being to infiltrate the organization as a means of learning what this hate group is all about. In order to pull this off, he needs the help of a white man to pose as him during face-to-face meetings, and thus enters Flip Zimmerman played by Kylo Ren – er, I mean, Adam Driver. Driver excellently plays the part of the laid-back, seasoned cop who just does the mission as if it were another job, only to finally realize the gravity of what he and Stallworth are doing. When he’s not terrorizing the galaxy as the all-black-clothed Ren in Star Wars Driver is an incredibly soulful actor who brings a casual, intelligent likability to his roles, which makes his galaxy villainy seem very out of place.
When Zimmerman (as Stallworth) does infiltrate the Klan Lee wastes no time pulling punches. The movie is surprisingly hilarious thanks to character interactions in the police stations, but the movie effortlessly tilts into full-on satire when the Klansmen enter. The main three are the bumbling, mouth-breathing, hee-hawing Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), the more restrained but nonetheless despicable and cowardly Walter (Ryan Eggold) and the no-holds-barred racist madman Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). All of them are losers who think themselves of a higher cause, and Lee doesn’t waste a moment making them look like the fools they are.
This works as equal parts satire and exposé, as we get a first-hand look into the nature of the Klan. The movie makes you cringe when these men spew hate speech, but soon after inspires us to laugh easily at their idiocy. They hoot and holler while watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, a scene that plays out like looking into a frat house full of drunk twenty-somethings acting like they’re the kings of the world. All you can do is put your face in your hands, chuckle, and mock away. This is a very narrow tightrope to walk, mixing tension, humor and history so delicately, but Lee (and the script) do so with expertise, with the fantastic cast following close behind them.
The movie does teeter into procedural territory a bit, as we see a lot of their infiltration but not much coming from it (as endlessly entertaining as that may be). The movie gets its soul from the moments between Stallworth and Patrice (Laura Harrier, though the character does not exist in real life), a strong, passionate, politically savvy freedom fighter who forces him to confront the two opposing worlds he lives in – being a cop and being black. Then there’s Topher Grace, who is perfect as the devil-in-a-bad-suit David Duke, a man whose head you wanna dunk in a toilet. Upon doing some research I discovered a lot of key elements that didn’t exist in the real tale were added to the story here, but all for the good reason of driving home the hard-hitting, gut-wrenching conclusion. In a classic Lee hover shot, Patrice and Ron glide towards their window, guns drawn, to see a cross being burned with KKK members surrounding it. This leads to the devastating footage from Charlottesville, Virginia, taken only a year ago, of alt-right racists clashing with protestors, highlighting terrifying parallels between the past and present. Ron and Flip came together to try and expose and stamp out bigotry, and if we have any chance of shutting up evil for good we as a society have to do the same. Really, is that so hard to do when the enemies are such f**king racist losers?