Our film critic David Edelstein reviews the latest from the director of "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," and "He Got Game":
Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" tells a largely-true story of a black undercover Colorado Springs detective named Ron Stallworth, who in the 1970s managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Before you say, "Hold on..." let's acknowledge Stallworth couldn't go to meetings. He could establish a phone rapport with Klan higher-ups, including Grand Wizard David Duke...
STALLWORTH: "I hate blacks, I hate Jews, Mexicans and Irish. Italians and Chinese. But my mouth to God's ears, I really hate those black rats and anyone else really that doesn't have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins."
DUKE: "I'm happy to be talking to a real white American!"
STALLWORTH: "God bless white Americans!"
Then, Stallworth (played by John David Washington) sends a white colleague in his place. In the film, that cop, played by Adam Driver, is Jewish, so you have a black and a Jew putting one over on dimwitted racists.
It's a comedy! Sort of. The racists are cartoonish, and Topher Grace portrays David Duke as a bantamweight.
But for all its easy laughs, there's a sting in its tail. Cross burnings and lynchings aren't, of course, funny, and neither is one of Lee's targets: D.W. Griffith's racist 1915 epic, "The Birth of a Nation," which is screened in "BlacKkKlansman" for enraptured Klan initiates.
Griffith's movie is set after the Civil War and portrays shiftless blacks running amok in Southern legislatures and menacing pure white women, one of whom throws herself off a cliff rather than submit. So, it falls to the Klan – a holy army – to avenge her.
"The Birth of a Nation" was the first American vigilante blockbuster. It singlehandedly revived what was then a dying KKK.
As an NYU film student, Lee made an angry satire in which a black director is hired to remake "Birth of a Nation." What bugged him is that it remains a landmark; Griffith both advanced the art of cinema and set back by 50 years the cause of racial freedom.
As always, Lee's open about his political agenda, which differs from the real Ron Stallworth's. Stallworth is a cop first: In a memoir ("Black Klansman"), he has reservations about some activists on the political left.
Lee does not.
The movie's Stallworth falls for a black student activist played by Laura Harrier and has his consciousness raised. And Lee ends with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist march – with the real David Duke defending his supporters, the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer, and Donald Trump saying there were bad acts on both sides.
So, "BlacKkKlansman" is a weird, clunky, provocative mix. It makes fun of the Klan, and then warns of white supremacists' enduring power.
In its impish, somewhat juvenile, but undeniably effective way, it wants to be "The Birth of a Black Nation."
To watch a trailer for "BlacKkKlansman" click on the video player below.
For more info:
- "BlacKkKlansman" (Official site)
More from David Edelstein:
Story produced by Cai Thomas.