At the Movies
Spike Lee Returns to Greatness
By Noah Gittell
Sometimes I worry that no one under the age of 30 knows about Spike Lee. The most accomplished black director in history, Lee’s early work, like “Do the Right Thing”, “Jungle Fever”, and “Malcolm X”, mixed entertainment and polemics to historically great effect. His steadfast refusal to placate white audiences made him a renegade, but his skill behind the camera made him a success. It’s the latter quality that has gone missing in recent years — he hasn’t had a commercial success since 2006’s “Inside Man”. But young cinephiles, take note: His newest, “BlacKkKLansman”, is a return to form for the 61-year-old master and one of the finest films of his career.
In mixing commercial entertainment and radical condemnation, it helps to have an irresistible story to draw from. The film is based on the true tale of a rookie black detective who impersonates a white racist and insinuates himself into the local Ku Klux Klan. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. Dismayed by his first assignment – to infiltrate and spy on the local Black Student Union – he strikes out on his own and calls a local representative of “the organization” to set up a meeting. He obviously needs a collaborator, so he enlists Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), the only Jewish member of the force, to play him in person.
For the first time in a long time, Lee seems to be having fun. As the “Stallworth brothers” get deeper and deeper with the local white supremacists, the film plays their adventures for both big laughs and high-wire tension. Flip endures a series of escalating initiation tests administered by the organization’s most deranged member – props in one scene include a pistol and a polygraph machine – while, behind the scenes, the racially-mismatched cops banter like Riggs and Murtaugh in “Lethal Weapon.”
Released the week of the anniversary of last year’s deadly Charlottesville white supremacist march, “BlacKkKlansman” could be read as Lee’s call for resistance to institutional racism. The film’s closing montage of news footage from that very march certainly supports that view. But Lee’s point is more elegant and perhaps more impactful. By using humor and action, and toying with genre, he allows his true subject to emerge: the banality of bigotry.
The most resonant moments in “BlacKkKlansman” are not of Stallworth and Zimmerman doing detective work. Nor does the love story between Stallworth and the idealistic young radical (Laura Harrier) really ever take center stage. Lee doesn’t even seem that interested in using film to take down the Klan. Instead, his eye is drawn to the lives of the Klan members, particularly its most violent member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen).
Felix is consumed by hate and anger, but the film takes us inside his home to meet his friendly wife, who muses on her desire to help kill blacks while serving “chips and dip” to her husband’s friends. Later, Lee brings us inside their bedroom, where the couple engage in intimate pillow talk about acts of atrocious violence. Amazingly, this scene is played for neither laughs nor horror. Lee stays in the moment, forcing viewers to see racist killers as human beings and to reckon with that reality
Finally, there is the casting of Topher Grace, looking like a slightly older version of his character Eric from “That 70s Show”, as David Duke, with whom Stallworth engages in a series of long phone calls with before he makes a trip to Colorado Springs. Duke is portrayed as a vision of the future; he wants to legitimize white supremacy by running for office, and Grace’s unique combination of familiarity and smarminess makes him perfect for the role. If it feels like a sitcom, well, that’s the point.
With such modern-day relevance, the film doesn’t need to draw too many parallels, but it does so, anyway. There is talk of making America great again. At another point, Stallworth scoffs at the idea that America might one day elect an openly-racist president (cue the knowing chuckle from the audience). Then there is, of course, the closing montage which brings the period piece into painfully bright, modern-day technicolor.
My Rating: See it in the Theater