Considering how drastically sociopolitical discourse has changed in this country since 2016, it’s curious to imagine how Spike Lee’s superb BlacKkKlansman (2018) might have been received even three or four years ago. Would it have seemed more audacious during the Obama years? More outrageous? Would its portrayal of brain-dead white nationalism have seemed more exaggerated? These questions ricocheted through my head as I watched this remarkable movie, which—setting all that speculation aside—couldn’t be more timely or chilling in the current moment. I think it’s Lee’s most powerful film since Do the Right Thing.
It tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black police officer in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. Initially, Stallworth gets his foot in the door by suffering the racist abuse of his reluctant colleagues as a records clerk. But he seizes on a chance at promotion when he’s tapped to go undercover at a black civil rights rally, where his work enables him to move up to detective. One day at work, Stallworth spontaneously calls a classified ad placed by the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Pretending to be white, he initiates a phone relationship with the local Klan leadership—mistakenly using his real name. This act escalates into an undercover assignment, during which Stallworth’s colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) assumes his identity in real life to penetrate the KKK on an incredible deep-cover op.
Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman is a scathingly political film, but it’s also a wildly entertaining one that treads a masterful line between comedy and drama. Indeed, the biggest surprise of the film may be how freaking funny it is. The film ridicules American white nationalism mercilessly, from its unflattering foot soldiers right up to Topher Grace’s shrewdly cast turn as David Duke. Washington delivers a deft mix of earnestness and comic timing, and his slowly growing rapport with his initially reluctant squadmates—especially Driver, who is outstanding—is amusing and endearingly rendered. For a film with such terrifying undercurrents, it is rife with laugh-out-loud moments.
But it’s also deadly serious. In less sure hands, the tonal transitions between humor and darkness might have been jarring, but Lee is fully in control. This is a masterpiece of audience manipulation, jokes and gags softening the audience up for dramatic gut punches on a regular basis. Driver’s effortless transformations, from his hilarious persona as Zimmerman to his appallingly bigoted undercover performance as “Ron Stallworth,” keep the viewer off-balance in the best possible way, making the film unsettling and thought-provoking. Does Lee, from time to time, use a hammer when a thumbtack would do? I think so, as is his wont. But somehow even the more heavy-handed moments seem absolutely appropriate in this context. We’ve entered an era when more hammers are necessary, and by and large BlacKkKlansmen hits all its nails right on the fucking head.