Spike Lee has never been what you’d call a subtle filmmaker. His implement of choice is the cudgel rather than the scalpel. But if there were ever a time where a light touch was beside the point, it’s America in 2018. Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, is set four decades in the past, yet its fiery message couldn’t be more timely — and its rage more justified. It’s easily the director’s best movie since 2002’s 25th Hour.
Based on the impossibly true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in Colorado Springs who went undercover in the late ’70s to slip into the Ku Klux Klan, Lee’s film is like “history written in lightning.” That phrase was once used to describe 1915’s The Birth of a Nation — an incendiary, race-baiting epic about the Klan, which Lee injects into his movie. The gambit may be on the nose, but it’s artful and it works. After all, his story is just as repellent.
Stallworth is played by John David Washington (son of Denzel), and he has much of his father’s cool poise and charisma. After noticing a recruitment ad for the Klan in the newspaper, he calls the number posing as a white racist eager to join up. The bile he spews into the receiver quickly gets him a meeting with the leader of the local chapter (Ryan Eggold). Stallworth obviously can’t go himself, so he enlists his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who happens to be Jewish, as his surrogate, like Cyrano de Bergerac in a white hood.
BlacKkKlansman is essentially a tense (and occasionally hilarious) sting-operation procedural. But it carries the urgent and unmistakably foul stench of truth as Stallworth and Zimmerman work their way up the Klan’s organizational ladder to Grand Wizard David Duke (a businesslike, banality-of-evil Topher Grace). You don’t have to squint very hard to see the sickening parallels between Colorado in the ’70s and, say, a place like Charlottesville just last summer. But Lee isn’t trying to observe niceties or be coy. He wants to rub our noses in the ugliness of the now. These days, the stakes are too high for subtlety. B+