[su_dropcap size=”5″]”T[/su_dropcap]here is no present or future–only the past, happening over and over again–now.” Eugene O’Neill’s words perfectly apply to BlacKklansman, a broiling, billowing, blisteringly funny film that marks Spike Lee’s best work in over two decades. Lee bookends his story with the acidic hiss of hate speech from two different eras: At the opening, a frothing, 50s segregationist (Alec Baldwin) decries the mixing of races and the fracturing of white culture. The ending flashes forward to the present day, where cowardly men with beer bellies and tiki torches spout insular gibberish that feels more fitting for Triumph of the Will than 21st Century America. These images meld to form a coherent thesis: Race relations in this country have come a long ways, and yet have also gone nowhere.
The plot for Lee’s opus seems so wacky that it seems like a Hollywood invention, but it’s not: It’s the 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Ron feels the pull of higher ambition, and pushes his superiors to assign him to undercover duty. He attends civil rights lecture, led by the charismatic Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), a passionate devotee of the Black Power cause. Loathe to tackle an organization for which he naturally feels empathy, Ron pivots his infestation in an interesting direction: He makes a call to the local chapter of the Klan, and is shocked when they agree to meet with him. The only problem? Ron is, well…black. So, he recruits Flip Zimmerman, a fellow detective (Adam Driver), to act as his Caucasian avatar. The only problem? Flip is, well… Jewish. Still, he snaps off his Star of David necklace and puts on a game face. Soon, Ron and Flip work their way up to David Duke (Topher Grace), a manicured bigot who heads up the Klan and envisions himself in high office.
With BlacKkKlansman, Lee doesn’t so much bury his trademark anger as blend it with bracingly funny humor and genuinely exciting action. This movie has the spark of satire, the intelligence of good social commentary, and the suspense of a transitional thriller. These traits work in subtle service to Lee’s message without being swamped by it. As with Malcolm X–which starred Washington’s father and remains Lee’s best work–Lee starts by telling an engrossing story, and lets the significance of it unfurl naturally.
The performances here are uniformly strong: Washington establishes himself as a true star and delivers a performance layered with emotional nuance and engaging personality. Driver is also phenomenal as the undercover cop who has to play a convincing Klansman or risk certain death. Grace does a great job playing a fumble-fisted nitwit who serves as the ultimate mark in an elaborate law enforcement con job.
Lee’s film makes frequent references to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a sweeping silent epic that glorified the Klan and led to its 20th Century lasting revival. Its effect was so profound that Woodrow Wilson is said to have screened it at the White House and remarked: “It is as it was.” Lee’s movie posits that who we were greatly influences who we are, and this often ruins any chance of who we could be. What’s past is prologue, and the past seems to keep happening over and over–now. BlacKkKlansman ends with fresh iPhone footage of protests and riots, reminding us that because the battle is still raging, the war can still be lost.
135 min. R.