There are few filmmakers in America more associated with tackling racial issues than Spike Lee, the African-American writer-director who exploded onto the national consciousness nearly 30 years ago with 1989’s incendiary classic “Do the Right Thing.” That tale of a riot breaking out in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year presented a truly daring cinematic vision that grew over the next couple of decades to include the biopic “Malcolm X,” interracial romance in “Jungle Fever,” the Million Man March in “Get on the Bus” and the rampant violence in inner-city Chicago with “Chi-Raq.”
Yet aside from the blockbuster heist thriller “Inside Man” in 2006, Lee had nearly lost his relevance with bomb after bomb throughout the 2000s. But he’s come roaring back in a big way with his latest film, “BlacKkKlansman,” which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and arrives this weekend with a great deal of buzz for its audacious trailers mixing outrageous comedy, cop-thriller elements and powerful emotional moments. It is easily his best film of this century.
The film follows the incredible true-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American who became the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Stallworth got the job because of the city’s effort to finally welcome a black officer, but the ambitious rookie quickly grew tired of his initial assignment working the overnight shift in the criminal records room.
The police chief orders him to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther Hoagy Carmichael at the Black Student Union of a local college and report on the response and plans of the young black activists in attendance. But after meeting an attractive leader named Patrice (Laura Harrier), he realizes that his gift for undercover work should be put to better use by bringing down the dangerous local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Teaming up with a Jewish cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Stallworth activates a crazy plan in which he will infiltrate the local KKK. The idea is for Ron to handle all the conversations possible by phone, while sending in Flip to pretend to be him whenever an in-person meeting is required.
While that situation is already rife with danger, things come to a boil as the national Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace) comes to town at the same time the Black Student Union is hosting a legendary black activist. Ron and Flip have to figure out how to uncover a dangerous bombing plot at the same time they’re trying to keep their cover and maintain their own private sanity and sense of identity.
“BlacKkKlansman” is 135 minutes long, yet stuffed to the limit with audacious plot points, stunning dialogue and vivid performances. Washington — the son of Denzel — knocks his first lead role out of the park, combining swaggering attitude with hilarious comic chops and occasionally searing emotion to create an indelibly memorable character out of Stallworth. Just like the film itself, he has to be considered an instant frontrunner for an Oscar nomination.
He’s matched note for note by Driver as Zimmerman, a man who finds himself in greater danger than Stallworth even though this is Stallworth’s crusade. Driver walks an electrifying tightrope with his performance, as he alternates contempt for the ignorant bigots around him with a need to spew even more venom than they do to maintain his cover and very survival.
Somehow, Lee and his team of three other screenwriters manage to make the most outrageously offensive slurs imaginable work in both dramatic and darkly comedic fashion while connecting the ugliness of 1970s American attitudes to the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia just a year ago.
Layered over it all is Terence Blanchard’s lush score, providing both propulsion and beauty to the proceedings onscreen and bringing it all to greater life. While working with an unusually potent screenplay, Lee also reins in his frequently self-indulgent visual techniques to keep the film focused and moving forward like a freight train through its often surreal events.
A film that engages the mind and enrages the spirit while often provoking gales of laughter, “BlacKkKlansman” is can’t-miss viewing for adults looking for both fun and substance in the dog days of summer.