‘BlacKkKlansman’ will be remembered for years to come
In Spike Lee’s latest provocation, “BlacKkKlansmen,” an African American detective goes undercover to investigate the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s Lee’s most successful film, both commercially and critically, in more than a decade, and for good reason: “BlacKkKlansman” is a ferociously-relevant piece of social commentary that says as much about the here and now as it does the past.
Set in the early 1970s, Lee’s film stars John David Washington (the son of Denzel), as Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs first ever black detective. Washington, a surprising standout among the cast — which includes Adam Driver, his partner in crime, and Topher Grace as the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke — is not only thoughtful and charismatic but strange enough to stand out and make the films more comedic beats roll, especially in the films opening act.
We first meet Stallworth when he strolls up to the Colorado Springs police station. The sign reads: “Now hiring. Minorities encouraged to apply.” During his interview, he’s asked how he’ll react to being called a very bad word. He’s told, he’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Dept.
Stallworth goes from the records room to a detective in a matter of no time when he’s asked to go undercover at a prominent Black Panther leader’s rally. Lee’s stylistic flourishes really begin to shine here. The captivated faces of the audience dissolve over one another as the speaker invigorates the crowd with a speech about empowering one another, fighting oppression and preparing for an inevitable revolution.
There he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the local college’s black student union, and his unprincipled love interest. Narratively, the relationship plays a little like an unfortunate device to give Stallworth’s character extra motivation, but thematically it works wonders, especially when Dumas begins to question his righteousness.
The story really begins to unfold when Stallworth makes an unsolicited call to a KKK recruitment ad in the local newspaper. The problem? He uses his real name. And Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman is forced to play the part of Ron Stallworth in person, while the real Ron Stallworth’s holds onto his new identity over the phone.
Lee’s film plays like a brief compendium navigating race relations from the early 20th century to the present. From its opening shot, showcasing hundreds of dead Civil War soldiers ripped straight from “Gone with the Wind,” to a howling Klan screening of D.W. Griffith’s infamous “The Birth of a Nation,” the first film screened at the White House which is credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, all the way to present, where images of last years Charlottesville riots wash over its closing credits. It’s in these moments — which showcase cinema’s impact on society and vice versa — where Lee decides to pull the brakes on subtlety and hammer his message home.
“BlacKkKlansman” is just a buddy cop movie about two minority’s confronted with hatred — Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish detective who’s been blind to the hate he’s faced his entire life, and Ron Stallworth, who’s trying to change the perception of the police and their relationship with the black community, even as he witnesses its systemic oppression of his own people.
“BlacKkKlansman” will inevitably be remembered as a defining movie of our time.