Spike Lee has always been one of the most outspoken directors for African American rights. His no holds barred mentality put him on the map in 1989 with Do the Right Thing and again in 1992 for his epic biopic Malcolm X. However, the last decade has been rough for Lee as his films have been of lower quality and struggled to click with the mainstream crowd. Fortunately for Lee and moviegoers, his new film, BlacKkKlansman, is a return to form as he delivers a thrilling crowd-pleaser that also isn’t afraid to attack race in American society.
Taking place in 1979 Colorado Springs, the film follows the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, who has just become the first black cop in town. His hiring is met with hostility among the white officers, mostly ones that like to create trouble for the fun of it.
As a hot-headed rookie looking to make his mark and bring a little change, Ron decides to go after the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Luckily for him, the Klan runs full ads in the paper to draw in recruits.
Ron picks up the phone and disguises his voice to sound like a white man in order to get information. His disguise works and he sets up a meeting with a recruiter. Obviously, Ron himself won't be able to go, so he sends white officer Flip Zimmerman to play as his white self.
From this point on, the story follows Ron and Flip running a tag team operation as they try to bring down one of the most hateful groups in America.
Over the past decade, we’ve gotten so used to Lee being overly loud and thunderous that it now feels a bit weird to see him show a decent amount of restraint when it comes to the volume of the message. He also paces the film really well for its 135-minute runtime. Action, comedy, and drama are interspersed, allowing the film to flow with great energy and rhythm.
Although Spike shows some restraint, he doesn’t fully commit. At times he falls back into his old over the top habits. One moment of this is at the beginning when we are shown a fictional Klan propaganda film that serves no real purpose other than to make you hear endless racial expletives.
For a script that has four credited writers, one of which is Lee, the writing never feels fragmented. Right off the bat, the biggest compliment to the script is that it never is too preachy with its message. We do hear a lot about racism in America, but it never feels overdone.
One thing that the writers struggle to do is blend together two different plots. We have the main investigation plot with Ron and Flip, but we’re also given a smaller romantic subplot between Ron and Patrice, an activist leader for black rights. Even though their romance does serve a purpose of highlighting racial tension in America, at times it feels shoehorned in and out of place.
Another minor thing that comes up periodically throughout is the writing for the Klan characters. Each one of them is onenote and are treated as cartoonishly evil. It makes them entertaining to watch, but it also makes it hard to take them seriously when real life or death stakes are presented.
The best part of the film is its characters and the actors that inhabit them. John David Washington, son of frequent Spike Lee collaborator Denzel Washington, gives one of the best leading performances of the year (so far). Just like his father, John carries a sort of charisma that makes his character feel authentic. He realizes his role is quite serious, but he also takes plenty of time to have fun with his character. It makes him very entertaining to watch, especially when he’s playing “White Ron” over the phone.
Adam Driver does exceptional supporting work as Flip. Just like Washington, Driver takes things seriously but also partakes in the fun every once in a while. He also gives his character a lot of depth, who is a lapsed Jew that is now starting to wrestle with his religious identity.
Lastly, Topher Grace of “That ‘70s Show” fame is great as infamous real-life Klan leader David Duke. Grace brings a weasel like attitude to his demented character and shares great chemistry with Washington as they engage with each other over the phone from time to time.
Just like last year’s breakout hit Get Out, BlacKkKlansman is one of the rare occurrences where a film is both entertaining and able to send a powerful message about racism in America. Whether it be Spike Lee’s powerful directing or the captivating performances, there’s a lot to like here.