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.