Review: BlacKkKlansman — One of the Best Films of the Summer Is This ‘Wake Up’ Call from Spike Lee

Laura Harrier and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman

“BlacKkKlansman” is fiercely felt, indulgently overlong, proudly provocative and excitingly experimental. It’s full of great performances (and a couple of scenery-chewing ones). It has a dreamy reverse-dolly of two people walking (but actually gliding) toward the camera. It brilliantly dramatizes a vital issue, and the debate over two diametrically opposed responses.

In other words, it’s a Spike Lee movie.

In some ways, it’s the most Spike Lee movie since “Malcolm X” (and not just because it’s got one of Denzel’s kids, John David Washington, in the title role). It’s a story that’s based on recent history, but draws direct parallels to today. It mixes fictional characters and documentary footage. And it ends with the same message Lee has been shouting for decades.

Wake up.

Its “fo’ real” story, as the opening titles call it, is about Ron Stallworth, a black police officer – actually, the black police officer – in early ‘70s Colorado Springs, Colo. He’s eager and ambitious, and the white chief figures he’ll take advantage of that by assigning him to undercover work — planning to use him to infiltrate and report on the burgeoning Black Power movement.

But then Stallworth sees a KKK recruitment ad in the local paper and comes up with his own idea: How about he infiltrate them?

It sounds impossible, but Stallworth has a plan. He’s already handled the initial phone contact; he’ll continue to keep that channel open. But whenever they need an actual face-to-face, a white officer will take his place. The only problem? His partner is Jewish. So now there are two cops at risk – even as the Klan seems to be preparing for something dangerously big.

That’s the basic story (and parts of it, to be sure, are not “fo’ real” at all) but it’s the telling of it that brings out all of Lee’s strengths, and a few of his signature weaknesses.

Topher Grace in BlacKkKlansman

The strong points?

There’s his passionate devotion to pop-culture criticism, as he uses other people’s movies – “The Birth of a Nation,” of course, and “Gone With the Wind” — to show how Hollywood not only accepted the myth of the South’s “lost cause,” but also normalized vigilante violence (and how blaxploitation films tried to fight back, writing their own, if occasionally negative, narrative).

There’s also his visual sense. A scene of a rousing Stokely Carmichael speech turns the usual reaction shots into a gallery of beautifully lit black portraits. A Black Student Union event – with Harry Belafonte talking movingly about a lynching – is intercut with a creepy Klan initiation. A racist propaganda film devolves into a surreal chaos of superimposed images and sound.

His weak ones? He casts hammy actors in some supporting roles (Alec Baldwin froths as a propagandist, and a couple of the racists are so twitchy they seem ready to explode). He’s suspicious of subtlety (at the initiation, the Klansmen chant “America First!”). He’s loose with logic (would the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Klan ever accept anyone as obviously Italian-American as Nicholas Turturro?)

Yet the film not only works – it emerges as one of the best films of the summer, and an essential look at race in America.

A collection of a few fine performances, too. Washington is a quietly forceful presence as Stallworth, and Laura Harrier a spirited choice as the head of the Student Union. Strong, stubborn and independent, she’s one of Lee’s most fully developed female characters and, along with the heroines of “Chi-Raq,” proves how much he’s grown since his earliest films.

As does the character of Flip Zimmerman, played perfectly by Adam Driver. Although Lee eventually weathered the cries of misogyny that sprang from his first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he’s never quite escaped the charges of anti-Semitism that arose with the release of “Mo’ Better Blues,” and its portrayal of two untrustworthy, insatiably greedy Jewish businessmen.

Yet “BlacKkKlansman” counteracts that, not only by showing the friendship between Stallworth and Zimmerman, his undercover partner, but by very explicitly reviving a real-life, liberal African-American/Jewish bond. Stallworth and Zimmerman aren’t just colleagues, aren’t just friends. They’re allies. Again, like “Chi-Raq” – which featured John Cusack as a real-life activist priest – it focuses less on people’s daily divisions than their common cause.

And, like “Malcolm X,” the film ends with documentary footage, in this case of the Charlottesville, VA. “Unite the Right” rally, and the violence that followed. (The film is opening almost exactly one year after the riots). And Lee asks the same question he did then, too: Should you work within the system, or without? Search for sympathizers, or pursue a separate path?

It’s long past time to really do the right thing. And that, “BlacKkKlansman” suggests, means finding a way to do it together – by all means necessary.