‘BlacKkKlansman’ is provocative dive into race in America

James Preston Poole

Spike Lee is nothing if not a provocative filmmaker, making movies that are often charged with racial issues. His latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” embodies this reputation more than any other.

Despite early success with “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” he’d hit a rough patch lately, following a series of commercially and critically underwhelming films. Nevertheless, “BlacKkKlansman,” a collaboration with producer Jordan Peele, marks a fine return to form for director Lee, telling a devilishly entertaining tale with a few missteps.

“BlacKkKlansman” tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American cop in 1970s Colorado Springs, Colorado. His ambition leads him to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man over the phone, while fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) acts as his in-person counterpart.

It’s easy to empathize with Stallworth on quite a few levels. The mission he undertakes is incredibly dangerous for a black man in 1970s America, and Washington’s performance carries a certain sensitivity. Washington’s Stallworth is a gentle man with a rigid moral center, which makes him a hero the audience can easily root for. This also makes his conflicts with prejudiced fellow officers and civil rights activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) that much more tough to watch, because we know his heart is in the right place.

This tension embodies the remarkable power that “BlacKkKlansman” can have. The script, which Lee co-wrote, takes its time to ruminate on Stallworth coming to grips with racial identity. His relationship with Zimmerman, played to snarky perfection by Driver, makes way for a notable scene in which Zimmerman discusses how, before he started infiltrating the KKK and hearing their hate speech, he never thought of himself as a Jewish man but as a white man. Moments like this do, unfortunately, slow the pacing of the film, but it’s worth it because they hover long after you’ve left the theater.

In a time when tension over race and class is high in the United States, these kinds of scenes are important. If the film is organically relevant in these moments, there are a few very on-the-nose scenes where characters use terms such as “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” This is about as subtle as being hit over the head and doesn’t add much to the proceedings, going for an “ah-hah” from the audience who most likely already gets it.

Also lackluster is the portrayal of the Klansmen themselves. By no means should they have been sympathetic characters, but these are really underdeveloped villains. In a film which shows considerable realism in its struggles, it’s a bit disappointing that Lee doesn’t get into the heads of those with so much hate in their hearts, but because it’s the KKK that’s being discussed, it’s easy to fill in the blanks.

The film does earn some points with Topher Grace’s hilariously pathetic David Duke, its score by Terrence Blanchard and its cinematography by Chayse Irvin, which imbue the film with a fitting retro style that makes sure the film is never boring. Beyond that, Lee is telling a story that he’s clearly passionate about and that rubs off distinctly. “BlacKkKlansman” may be messy in a couple spots, but it’s still a well-made film that achieves its goal of getting the audience to think about racial politics.

“Black KkKlansman”

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Score: 3.5/5