Spike Lee has made a career demonstrating a fearlessness in talking truth to power. While his recent narrative films have been a mixed bag (while simultaneously his non-fiction work has been deeply underappreciated), this latest punch in the gut, ‘BlacKkKlansman’, is a welcome return to form for the Brooklyn native.
Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American cop who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, this surreal tale is told using Lee’s trademark kinetic style. With fine performances by John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace, the film is both historically relevant and very much a matter for contemporary contemplation, making explicit the tie of the egregious behaviors of the past to the current rise of nationalist, nativist and generally racist movements both in the U.S. and around the world.
Lee is unafraid to tackle directly the hate-filled rhetoric that’s growing increasingly loud of late, while still managing to craft an entertaining cop drama that also has moments of surreal levity. Produced by Jason Blum and Jordan Peele, the team behind the smash ‘Get Out’, the movie uses these various genre elements as weaponized rhetoric, calling b.s. where required yet recoiling against simplistic or jingoistic responses to such abhorrent behavior.
With a wild visual style and terrific turns by the ensemble cast, Lee reminds us yet again of his capacity to grab audiences by the throat and make them listen. It’s often an unsubtle approach, but the bombastic style of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ manages to get to the root of some of the original sins of America, putting up a mirror to those that quietly accept such nonsense as normal. It’s a powerful message that never devolves into being a screed. By putting it in the context of a popular entertainment, it provides audiences with the tools to recontextualize the present through the lens of what came before, all while giving us a bunch of fun, entertaining moments. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but Lee and his collaborators have managed to do so brilliantly.