'Do the Right Thing' filmmaker takes on the KKK in outrageous comedy based on real life tale
Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" is a provocative, incendiary 1970s-set comedy that has plenty to say about race relations today — and just in case you don't get the point, Lee makes sure he hammers it so hard and so thoroughly you can't miss it.
He doesn't need the blowtorch approach. The "BlacKkKlansman" story is outrageous enough on its own, and Lee's direction connects the dots between the story's setting and now.
In the film's closing moments, however, he brings in current news footage of Donald Trump and the unrest that erupted last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, things that were all subtext throughout the film. It's like he doesn't trust the audience to draw their own parallels. This dulls the effect, but it wouldn't be Spike Lee if things didn't get a little messy along the way.
And they're messy throughout, but "BlacKkKlansman" is Lee's most fiery effort in years, and that fire makes it his most vital work since 2002's "25th Hour."
Scaling back the outright absurdity of 2015's "Chi-Raq" with a more straightforward story and telling, "BlacKkKlansman" tells the unbelievable true tale of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's son), a black detective in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who, through phone conversations, was able to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
He does so with the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as his real-world proxy. Zimmerman himself is playing a double role, since he's denying his Jewish heritage by aligning with the anti-Semitic KKK. Washington and Driver are a formidable duo and admirably carry the film's emotional weight, while Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen does frightening work as a rabid Klansman.
There's a love story (Laura Harrier plays an activist whom Stallworth falls for) that doesn't ignite, and a climactic action scene is confusingly shot and presented.
But when Lee (he also wrote the screenplay, based on Stallworth's book, with three co-writers) is dealing with the KKK and the racial tension and discrimination inside Stallworth's department, "BlacKkKlansman" is fully locked and loaded.
The dialogue is jarring; not since "Django Unchained" have this many ugly and jarring racial epithets been uttered on screen. But Lee is able to soften the edges of what could be unbearably heavy material by heightening the comedy of the situation, a balancing act he pulls off well.
Casting Topher Grace as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke signals the film's sense of humor and aim, and Grace is hilarious as the clueless Klansman Stallworth befriends over the phone. (The telephone scenes strike a familiar chord to the current "Sorry to Bother You," where a black character is encouraged to use his "white voice" when speaking on the phone.)
Lee's signature touches remain, including his affinity for having characters float on a fixed camera rig, and longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard's jazzy, at times overly mournful score.
Bits with Alec Baldwin (as a deeply racist narrator) and Harry Belafonte (as an elder activist) feel superfluous and message-y, and don't fit well into the film's narrative.
But Lee is a true auteur, and at 61, he remains a defiant, daring, gutsy, visionary filmmaker. Despite his flaws, we're better off with him making movies. And despite its flaws, we're better off with "BlacKkKlansman" than without it.
Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
Running time: 135 minutes