Across thirty-plus years of commercially released feature films, director Spike Lee has rarely lacked for ambition. Near-perfect or fatally flawed, his efforts are routinely packed with ideas, manifesting as narrative deconstruction, wildly inventive manipulations of cinematic technique, or heated social commentary. For better and worse, Lee directs with the exhaustive impulses of an individual who’s certain the camera will be taken away at any moment, maybe because Hollywood has been tacitly threatening just that from the very beginning. Lee seemingly transforms every creative notion into an element on screen. That can make even his strong films cluttered, but when one works — really, really works — it’s something like watching an expert magician perform their best illusions in a carnival ride operating at full throttle. For me, BlacKkKlansman is one of those Lee movies that works. Really, really works.
In Lee’s preferred nomenclature, BlacKkKlansman “is based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.” Set in the early nineteen-seventies, the film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie officer with the Colorado Springs police force who impulsively launches an undercover investigation into a resurgent local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron can bluff just fine on the phone, but his dark skin prevents him from following through on the necessary face-to-face encounters as he engenders greater trust with the organized bigots. Fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is enlisted as Ron’s double, and the two push deeper and deeper into the group, until Ron is being groomed for leadership roles and forging a relationship with the new national leader of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace).
While largely avoiding explicit narrative commentary on the enduring pertinence of examinations of the insidious reach of white supremacy movements (and handling it with admirable deftness when he does indulge), Lee burrows in to why the opportunistic spread of hate is an unavoidable part of the long, troubled story of the U.S. of A. By the end of the film, when Lee incorporates more recent news footage — including the real David Duke enthusing about the messages offered by the current occupant of the Oval Office — it has a power that has been deeply earned. The complexities of political messaging are held up to the light, whether in the Black Power movement or the countering groups that girded themselves in hate disguised as ever-so-reasonable pride in their own heritage. And, adding a thrilling dose of the particularly personal, Lee holds cinema itself to account, dragging out The Birth of a Nation for understandable derision, but also sparing a conflicted thought for the blaxploitation films of the era in which BlacKkKlansman is set.
If the thematic particulars of BlacKkKlansman wander with striking range, the tone is even more freewheeling. For much of the time, the film is exuberantly fun, easily hitting comedic notes ready for the playing in its audacious premise. But Lee is able to shift with forceful certainty, pivoting to introspection, poignancy, high tension, and bold confrontation. The film swerves wildly and yet is always clearly under Lee’s control. He know when to cut away quickly and also when the material is strong enough to allow him to linger, holding scenes until they feel lived rather than shot and constructed.
Into his sixties, with a lifetime achievement Oscar on his shelf and a recent retreat to a revised version of his very first feature, it was natural to assume that Lee might be officially past his time, far removed from his days of artist provocation. BlacKkKlansman smashes that theory to bits.