Spike Lee reaches a career high point with ``BlacKkKlansman''
Posted August 8, 2018 1:05 p.m. EDT
So, it has come to this. Spike Lee is relevant again. He's necessary again.
His new movie, ``BlacKkKlansman,'' though set in the 1970s, is very much about the times we're living in, about racism in America and the shocking resiliency of hate. It's one of his best, and that's saying a lot, and it brings out his array of gifts -- not just his political passion, but his absurd sense of humor and his almost uncanny social intuition.
This is the filmmaker who made ``Do the Right Thing'' two years before the Los Angeles riots, and who, in the wake of 9/11, realized that his somber New York drama, ``25th Hour,'' could be made into an elegy for all that had been lost in the tragedy.
``BlacKkKlansman,'' which is being released on the one-year anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., feels like a movie-length response to that event. In fact, the film was completed before that awfulness, though a coda, acknowledging Charlottesville and the killing of Heather Heyer, was appended.
``BlacKkKlansman'' tells the bizarre fact-based story of Ron Stallworth, who became the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Treated with condescension by his colleagues and relegated to boring desk work, he takes it upon himself to contact the Ku Klux Klan, pretending to be white. What follows is a two-pronged investigation, with Ron (John David Washington) infiltrating the Klan by phone, and his white colleague Zimmerman (Adam Driver) doing it in person, by pretending to be the Ron that they know over the phone.
Though the real-life investigation took place in 1978, Lee and his trio of screenplay collaborators move the action to the early 1970s, a subtle transposition that makes a difference. On a superficial level, the early '70s styles are just more fun -- big Afros, wide lapels, polyester bell-bottoms and bright colors. More importantly, the early '70s were turbulent, an era of radical politics. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a fresh memory, and the Black Panthers were still active.
This atmosphere of polarization -- radical politics on one side and white nationalist terror on the other -- forms the background for ``BlacKkKlansman'' and makes it all the more analogous to our current political moment. Then as now, political differences were not about two sides, sharing similar values, espousing different paths to the same ends, but rather about two sides with opposed visions of right and wrong, trying to move the country in completely different directions.
Lee, who never loses his sense of playfulness, pokes fun at the styles and gets comic mileage out of the absurdity of a black man putting on some nasal version of a white voice, spouting racist bile over the phone to David Duke. Yet such is Lee's nimbleness as an artist that he can let such moments breathe, and yet take the plunge into near-terror, as when Zimmerman is confronted by a Klansman who angrily accuses him of being Jewish (which he is.).
This tonal fluidity -- this ability to be funny and terrifying by turns, incorporating both moods within a single, coherent and unifying tone -- is something Lee has been able to do since ``Do the Right Thing.'' But it's also a hallmark of recent black filmmaking, from Jordan Peele's ``Get Out'' to ``Blindspotting,'' starring and co-written by Daveed Diggs, to Boots Riley's ``Sorry to Bother You.'' The unifying element within and between these films is an assumption that there's something inherent in American life in 2018 that's both terrifying and absurd at precisely the same time.
To that end, the Klansmen here, in all their moods and incarnations -- some adopting a tone of faux reasonableness, some foaming at the mouth with rage and others taking solace, in their lowly state, in some illusion of genetic destiny -- are both exaggerated and utterly realistic. And Lee is accurate in emphasizing the modern Klan's hatred of Jews, as well as blacks. What's less certain is whether Klansmen in the 1970s ever really chanted ``America First,'' but the connection to the present is made, and it's effective.
Had it ended where Lee originally expected it to end, ``BlacKkKlansman'' would have been a very good movie, his best in years. The extra kick into greatness comes with the Charlottesville coda, featuring unsettling footage we've never seen before. The movie bring it all home and brings it all together -- the past, the present, and the unsettling and uncertain future.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's film critic.
4 stars out of 4 stars Drama. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver. Directed by Spike Lee. (R. 135 minutes.)
RESPONSIBLE COPY EDITOR: King Kaufman
movie centerpiece for friday
'BlacKkKlansman' a high point for Spike Lee
### DATEBOOK PHOTO: DATEBOOK_Blackklansman0810_20180807-084533.JPG [Film Review BlacKkKlansman]
### DATEBOOK BYLINE: David Lee
### DATEBOOK CREDIT: Associated Press
### DATEBOOK CAPTION: Adam Driver and John David Washington as '70s cops who team up to infiltrate the Klan in ``BlacKkKlansman.''