Courtesy of Focus Features
On the surface, it might be hard for anyone to spot that “BlacKkKlansman” is, in fact, a Spike Lee joint. Granted, it does have all the signature style and flare accustomed for a Spike Lee picture, a filmmaker known for pushing the boundaries of cinema from time to time. However, we're not talking about “Inside Man” levels of mainstream here, but “BlacKkKlansman” is the director's most ambitious film in years; throwing as many logs on the fire of racial stereotyping as he can, while milking solid performances from John David Washington, Adam Driver, and – of all people – Topher Grace.
Winding back the clocks to the psychedelic 70's' we're told this story is based on some 'fo real fo real shit' where we meet Ron Stallworth (Washington, son to Denzel), the first African-American hired to the Colorado Springs police force. He's ambitious, and wants more than just filing records and retrieving paperwork on a daily basis. His chief takes the bait when a prominent figure rolls into town by the name of Kwame Ture (Cory Hawkins giving a demanding performance) and figures Ron could fit in ceaselessly. Aside from gathering intel, Ron strikes up a conversation with a feisty Black Panther leader (played here by Laura Harrier of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” fame) and develops a soothing relationship. Little does she know, he's actually a cop working undercover.
Even though that romance isn't as developed as it should be, the real meat of this true story comes when Ron, out of the blue, picks up his telephone and rings the local Ku-Klux-Klan chapter asking for an invite (something tells me that relationship won't go over so well). But, lucky for Ron, he talks like a bible salesmen, making his ethnic background fairly unknown to those he speaks with on the other end - despite him accidentally giving up his own name (Rookie mistake). This is where Driver's Flip Zimmerman comes into the picture as the bait-and-switch approach where Flip will “play” Ron. It doesn't help that he's jewish, but he looks the part and as Ron says “With the right white man, we can do anything.”
This sets up the bulk of what Lee wants to accomplish, with a mostly engaging and politically charged dark comedy that has some tonal issues leading up to its murky climax. For instance, Lee tries to infuse some humor into Flip's infiltration of the local chapter or, as the white supremacists prefer, “organization.” The buffoons themselves are hardly idolized, but – at times – the script seems to give some of them a pass, offering up oddly placed comic jabs (specifically coming from “I, Tonya” standout Paul Walter Hauser who's annoying fat-boy shtick wears thin) when the audience needs to take their power-hungry militia seriously. And you can tell with all the references to blaxploitation flicks like “Superfly and “Cleopatra Jones” that Lee might have bit off more than he can chew, but at least his smooth transitions seem to keep “BlacKkKlansman” from being a total downer.
Perhaps the biggest revelation Lee provides is a winning performance from Topher Grace, playing the grand wizard of the KKK himself, David Duke. No disrespect to Grace, but this is a role it seems like he was born to play. Him and Washington both have a charm and giddiness surrounding their personalties that you crave to see where the story will end up. Specifically because Duke claims to “Know the difference between a white voice and black voice” - unbeknown that he's being duped hand over fist (“it's how they pronounce their 'R's'” he says). Meanwhile, Flip's journey is equally as compelling, because he's constantly put in harms ways every time he shows up to a local meeting.
This all goes down a familiar strut, with Lee throwing an interesting tag on the ending which connects the events from this film to present day racism such as the rally that took place in Charottesville just last year. While that inclusion seems a bit extra (even by Spike Lee standards) it's clear the message he wants to send, and we're all the better for having sat and listened to it.