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Why Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman Is Much More Than a History Lesson

The filmmaker's true-life period drama, with a playful comic touch, is a provocative mix of passion and rage with powerful contemporary parallels.
By Todd Jorgenson |

Spike Lee returns to top form with BlacKkKlansman, his latest invigorating polemic in which he makes blunt connections between the notorious white supremacist group and the current climate in Washington and elsewhere.

The venerable filmmaker expertly balances some dark subject matter with a playful comic touch in this true-life historical drama, which becomes a provocative mix of passion and rage with powerful contemporary parallels.

The film takes place in the early 1970s, when Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police detective in Colorado Springs. Amid his more mundane assignments, he befriends a Black Student Union activist (Laura Harrier) and later hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as it prepares for a rally.

So Ron endears himself to Klan leaders over the phone by adopting a stereotypical Southern white-man voice. But the undercover operation requires an actual white man to appear in person. Enter the dedicated Flip (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who becomes Ron’s partner in planning and execution. Meanwhile, the phone calls eventually reach national KKK kingpin David Duke (Topher Grace), who obliviously facilitates Ron’s membership application.

Along the way, Ron projects more optimism than his white colleagues. “America would never elect somebody like David Duke,” he’s told. Yet Ron also is morally conflicted, wanting to play by the rules while seizing the opportunity to act as a behind-the-scenes crusader for civil rights.

Washington is the son of Denzel, and the resemblance is obvious not only in terms of physical appearance, but in the ability to blend charisma and sincerity on screen. He brings depth and complexity to his understated portrayal.

Rarely does Lee indulge in subtlety, and the wildly uneven and awkwardly titled BlacKkKlansman is no exception. In fact, its heavy-handed tendencies might be off-putting to some. You’ll know right away, thanks to an opening sequence of redneck buffoonery featuring Alec Baldwin that borders on pretentious and overbearing.

While exploring cultural heritage and religious identity, the film — based on Stallworth’s memoir — captures the look of the period, but also effectively depicts a climate of sociopolitical extremism and racial strife that’s cumulatively chilling.

As it builds to a riveting final act, the film is a frequently amusing satire fueled by some uncomfortable truths. It might make you laugh and cringe simultaneously, which is exactly the point.

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