You never know which Spike Lee is going to show up these days, as lately he’s been everything from execrably niche (Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus) to execrably mainstream (Old Boy). Of all his movies though, BlacKkKlansman probably most closely resembles Malcolm X. Straightforward historical Spike Lee might be my favorite Spike Lee. He’s less self-consciously artistic, more concerned with telling the story than being a provocateur — which means less unconventional camera angles and editing, less fourth-wall-breaking and slam poem-esque tone. In BlacKkKlansman you sense Lee’s passion more than his technique. In a welcome surprise, it’s also funny. It’s easily Lee’s most crowd-pleasing movie in years, almost to a fault.
John David Washington (who plays Ricky Jarret in Ballers, and was also, coincidentally, one of the kids in the classroom at the end of Malcolm X) plays Ron Stallworth, an afro’d “soul brother” who nonetheless answers the call for minority applicants to become the first black police officer in famously conservative Colorado Springs. He begs his higher-ups, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind‘s Robert John Burke and The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock (the casting director did a wonderful job) to let him go undercover. Thanks in part to being a black guy with an afro, he soon gets his wish: checking out a Stokely Carmichael speech at the black student union to see if Carmichael and those dangerous Black Panthers are planning to subvert the union.
Lee’s nostalgia for the ’70s and the civil rights movement comes through in every frame, doing a Spielberg-face zoom on Stallworth as he listens to Carmichael’s words, and later shooting an extended cameo by 91-year-old Harry Belafonte playing a character recounting a lynching. This being a Spike Lee movie, you might expect Stallworth to become radicalized by the experience, to have an awakening and subsequent trash-can-through-the-window moment. He works for a racist police department, after all. He changes some, but it’s more nuanced than that. Stallworth debates his more radical girlfriend, Patrice (Laura Harrier), about whether ’tis nobler to try to change a racist system from the inside or tear it down and start over, and neither come off like the straw man.
The central plot concerns Stallworth playing a potential KKK recruit over the phone (between this, Blindspotting, and Sorry To Bother You, black people who can sound white over the phone are really having a moment), a role that in-person falls to Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer through whose experience we can explore another race dichotomy: the difference between someone who can “pass” and someone who can’t. The theme is clearly laid out plainly (again, it’s Spike Lee), but it’s done elegantly; not as didactic as a lot of Lee’s work.
You have to suspend a little disbelief that anyone could confuse Adam Driver’s singular side-mouthed nasal-y drawl for another person’s voice, especially John David Washington’s crystal baritone, but it’s worth it for how great they are together. Narratively, it’s such a streamlined way to explore so many conflicts of race in America and the Civil Rights movement. Not to mention simply being compelling as a story. Some of the klansmen fall into familiar character tropes, with Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen playing the friendly and the mad dog, respectively, but it’s forgivable. Meanwhile, Paul Walter Hauser, so memorable as Shawn Eckhart in I, Tonya, gets another bumbling nincompoop character here, and Topher Grace (!!) shows up as David Duke in a truly inspired piece of casting.
I used to think of Spike Lee and Oliver Stone as two sides of the same coin, slick filmmakers occasionally capable of good work, and great at getting across one specific idea, but often with a singularity of purpose that can seem, well… blowhard-y. No one ever accused either of them of having a light touch. But where Stone has been making almost laughably terrible movies for at least a decade, Lee, at 61, has just turned in one of his best, a film almost as funny as it is impassioned. I’m not sure you could say any of Stone’s movies have a great sense of humor, at least not on purpose. After Klansman, comparing the two of them no longer seems especially useful.
Spike Lee has said that only white people ask him why Mookie smashes Sal’s window in Do The Right Thing, never black people, and in any case the window smashing scene is probably a big part of the reason why, as Lee says, correctly, that people still talk a lot more about Do The Right Thing than they do about that year’s best picture winner, Driving Miss Daisy. For a filmmaker so closely associated with that scene (which Lee wrote, directed, and played Mookie in), BlacKkKlansman is oddly conciliatory. It delivers an ending that, if anything, paints too-rosy a picture of race relations.
Malcolm X ended with a kind of fourth-wall breaking montage of school children all over the world rising from their desks to shout “I am Malcolm X.” It’s a scene I always hated, Lee telling us something he’d already just shown us. In BlacKkKlansman he does something similar, only with scenes from the infamous Charlottesville alt-right rally and protest. I still don’t love the stock footage ending, especially after a movie whose present-day implications were already abundantly clear and more artfully stated, with klan members chanting “America first” and espousing rhetoric that always sounds pretty close to “Make America Great Again” (which was Reagan’s before it was Trump’s).
The difference in this case though is that, whether Lee intended it simply to underline his previously stated message or not, the montage offers a nice contrast to the slightly saccharine ending that came before it. Neither work too well separately, but together they create kind of a compelling logic. And in either case, it offers something worth discussing in what’s otherwise just a good, straightforward historical film. Taken as a whole, BlacKkKlansman is good enough that it not only affirms Lee’s place in the pantheon, but it also makes me want to rethink some of his past work.