Talent and a cause make Spike Lee a dangerous filmmaker

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Friday 31
4.5 out of 5

Nobody can accuse Spike Lee of coasting on his reputation. His movies aren’t always successful but there’s always something good in them. Even his reviled Oldboy remake (which I didn’t hate) had a go-for-broke attitude one had to acknowledge. But Lee’s best work is sublime: Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour are masterpieces that gain accolades every passing year. Both became definitive snapshots of distinct moments in American history: simmering racial tension in late-’80s Brooklyn, and New York and America in the aftermath of 9/11.

Lee is more than a clear, righteous voice: his visual sense is unique and he’s got a wicked sense of humour. It’s all in BlacKkKlansman, a based-on-a-true-story movie that captures the current zeitgeist — hey look, American xenophobia is alive and well!  — even though it takes place in 1972.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is a rookie cop in the Colorado Springs force who hustles his way into undercover detective work. His distasteful first assignment — infiltrating a town assembly with civil rights movement icon Kwame Ture — inspires him to attempt something more attuned to his beliefs, so he infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.

Over the phone, Stallworth befriends not only the leader of the KKK’s local chapter but the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace, That ’70s Show). Stallworth obviously can’t show his face at the meetings so he convinces a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of his bigoted persona.

BlacKkKlansman is based on entertaining real events. The madcap concept and the danger that Stallworth will be discovered are enough to keep audiences interested, but Lee takes the film to next level by amping-up the story’s relevance. We see the complicated relationship between African-Americans and the police, and recognize similarities between the KKK and Trump voters (who both love tossing around ugly terms like “America first”). It isn’t subtle but these are not times for pussyfooting.

In any other film, planting a speech in the middle would stop any momentum the movie has going. BlacKkKlansman has two speeches: The Ture (Corey Hawkins) talk (“black is beautiful”) feels current, and there’s a devastating description of a lynching by 91-year-old Harry Belafonte. Lee intercuts Belafonte’s monologue with Klan celebrations and bits of Birth of a Nation (a love letter to the hooded organization) to underline the KKK’s revolting inhumanity.

As Stallworth, Washington carries the movie with ease — didn’t see it coming from his show, Ballers. He doesn’t have his dad’s gravitas but he’s got the swagger. We know what Driver can do but Grace’s mild-mannered menace is a straight-up chilling surprise.

BlacKkKlansman’s unwieldy, Scooby-Doo ending gives way to images of recent events (Donald Trump’s monstrous rhetoric, his utterly disturbing rallies), with an emphasis on Charlottesville. Odds are you’ve already seen the scenes Spike Lee uses but in the context of the film they acquire a different meaning. White supremacist movements are alive and well, and they’ve been tacitly endorsed by the American government.

The struggle continues, same as it ever was.