There’s no denying that Spike Lee is one of the iconic filmmakers of the past thirty years. He burst on the scene with “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986, establishing his reputation as a phenomenal screenplay immediately. “Do the Right Thing” is a cinematic triumph, and one of the best 25 to 30 American films ever made. “Malcolm X” is a sprawling epic featuring a triumphant performance. Lee’s an icon, and though his outspoken activism has made some (white) audiences turn away, he’s never not been Spike Lee. If you think about it, he never really dropped off either. “25th Hour” (2002), “Inside Man” (2006), and “Chi-Raq” (2015) each flashes the brilliant mind that made him an auteur. With “BlackkKlansman,” it feels like his entire career has been leading to this moment. Lee was ready and delivers some of the best work of his career.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black cop that was able to go undercover and infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. With his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) playing “White Ron”, the two quickly forge a connection with various members of the Colorado Springs KKK. This includes CS president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and the Grand Wizard of the Klan David Duke (Topher Grace). Other Klan members Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) and Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) remain uneasy about their new member. Meanwhile, the real Stallworth begins a relationship with the CS Black Student Union President Patrice (Laura Harrier), who becomes a target of the Klan.
Lee’s screenplay is masterful blends a half dozen great ideas into a single story. The history of the Klan and the rise of the alt-right is covered extensively. Concepts, such as dog whistles to racism are spoken about, yet never mentioned explicitly. The film tracks the history of alt-right rhetoric, with the film expressing taglines popularized by elements of the current Republican party. It is the least subtle part of the movie, but it is also a necessary piece of the story.
Also tied into the story is the importance of representation on film. The film opens with “Gone with the Wind,” frequently comments on “The Birth of a Nation,” and nods to brilliant Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s. It is love with black cinema and black escapist fantasy, igniting debates about “Shaft” versus “Superfly.” Visuals references pop throughout the film, giving “BlacKkKlansman” a visual flair few Lee films accomplish. With Lee blending together Southern film with an age of black empowerment on film, Lee parallels today in unexpected ways. We’re moving away from prestige films being focused on white history (such as “The King’s Speech” or “Darkest Hour”). The modern rise of black filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Ryan Coogler has ushered in a new era of diversity on screen. Lee’s vision to draw together parallels beyond politics, to pop culture and film, add to the relevancy of his messages.
The screenplay goes even further. It examines how each individual expresses their blackness, and about the importance of activism in that expression. Ron wants to change the reality for black men and women who want to be police. Patrice refers to police, even Ron, as Pigs. The divide between the police and the black community is high, and we see several instances of police brutality and violence on screen. The screenplay crackles with dozens of ideas and works to flesh them out over the course of the film. It’s a difficult task, but Lee and his fellow screenwriters execute the concepts brilliantly.
Meanwhile, the film features some really great performances. There aren’t any actors or actresses that are weak links. Each brings something unique to the table. Best in show probably goes to Pääkkönen, an unknown to most American audiences. Some may have seen Pääkkönen for his turn on A&E’s Vikings, but he may find his way into the Oscar race with his performance here. He’s got the loudest role of anyone in the film, which gives him more standout and creepy moments along the way. Topher Grace is good as David Duke, and its easily a career best for him. We also get comedy from Paul Walter Hauser, in a role extremely similar to his role in “I, Tonya” last year.
Then there’s Washington and Driver, who each give very strong performances. However, both are extremely subtle, to the point where they make difficult work look easy. Washington could be an extremely strong actor, and while it is unlikely he’ll ever be his dad (Denzel), he has his own chops making him attention worthy. Washington does something special here, bringing in a lot of complex emotions and making them feel natural and real. Driver is the most consistently strong, but it’s not a career-best (“Patterson” or “Logan Lucky“) but it’s also above average work.
The direction from Spike is also very good. He brings together a crew to execute his vision to perfection, and his fingerprints are all over it. This includes some very good work with his editor, Barry Alexander Brown. They know how to use old film well, and keep the pace of the film throughout. It’s an extra punch that really helps the movie continue to feel kinetic, even in its darker moments. Spike’s command over the way music is used throughout is strong, helping to elevate moments that could have fallen flat in a lesser director’s hands. His style breathes life into many moments across the film. For everything that Spike adds to the film that feels a little on the head, he adds just as much back through his other signatures. This is the film that cements Lee as one of the greats of all time, and this will go down as one of his best.
With “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee has delivered another excellent film in his filmography. His best since “Do the Right Thing,” Lee returns to the pinnacle of his field. The film flows from moment to moment, and ushers in one of Lee’s best screenplays. With a strong ensemble attached, focused on a half-dozen topics, Lee brings a wacky story to life. It will be among the year’s best and stakes its claim as one of the most relevant films of the decade.