BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee's shotgun spray of righteous anger at the Age of Trump

By Leigh Monson

   There's a reason Spike Lee has a reputation for being the preeminent black filmmaker of his generation (other than, you know, being one of the only black filmmakers given the platform to develop a catalog of any size). Lee is an incredible talent who consistently marries the multitude of political and social commentaries buzzing through his mind with a reverence for Hollywood classicism, making his voice at once fresh and contemporary while harkening back to those who came before him.
   It's unfortunate, then, that his projects have existed in relative obscurity over the past decade or so, and with the possible exception of Chi-Raq, Lee hasn't really recaptured the energy that defined his younger days. At least, that would be true were it not for the existence of BlacKkKlansman, which doesn't quite revive the intensity that once fueled Do The Right Thing, but it comes as close as Lee has been in a long while.
   Based on the true story of black police officer Ron Stallworth (here played by John David Washington), BlacKkKlansman follows Stallworth's unbelievable spearheading of an undercover investigation into the activities of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Stallworth would interact with the Klan over the phone – even fooling Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) in repeated interactions – while a fellow police officer (Adam Driver) would serve as Stallworth's face during Klan meetings. The film embellishes upon reality to some extent, adding a romantic subplot to highlight the conflict between Stallworth's role as a police officer and as a black man, as well as a third act ticking bomb to give a more visceral climax to a story that otherwise doesn't have one, but at its core BlacKkKlansman is an incredible bit of under-reported history shoved under the rug to be revived now when the Klan is terrifyingly politically relevant again.
   In that spirit, Spike Lee's shotgun approach to storytelling is put to prescient use, drawing a direct line between this story to our nation's past and our present. He does so with direct commentary on how popular culture has always been couched in racism, reified in works like The Birth of a Nation that continue to inspire the Klan as much as they act as the roots of all modern cinema. He plainly spells out in dialogue how David Duke laid the groundwork for the mainstreaming of Klan philosophies that led to the election of Donald Trump, which culminates in a climax that feels like a slap to the face. Lee isn't afraid to have fun at the Klan's expense, but he does so to remind you why the Klan is so terrifying with juxtaposition that demonstrates how stupidity and racism are not preclusions to power but instead reinforce it.
   As much as that wide breadth of scope miraculously ties together into a coherent philosophy about the rise of racist authoritarianism in America, however, the basic construction of BlacKkKlansman's story still suffers from many of the same problems as other films in Lee's later catalog. The film flits between tonally dissonant scenes without regard for connectivity or cohesion, and while all these scenes function more than effectively on their own terms, they feel stitched together with only the barest regard for continuity. This often leads to extended diversions into political discourse, and while that is engaging in its own right, it tends to leave Stallworth's story feeling like a thin excuse for speeches that needed a story built around them.
   But that's almost to be expected from Spike Lee at this point, and if you know what you're getting into, BlacKkKlansman really is as good as Lee has been in over a decade. His politics are biting, his comedy is dark, and his tendency toward tonal whiplash is put to effective use here, creating a thesis that isn't exactly revolutionary but does serve as a reminder of how exactly we ended up with an overt racist in the White House. This isn't Lee at his best, but he's at his most angry and his most timely, and that's enough.

4/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.