, director Spike Lee tells an incredible true story about American racism.
As is the case with every state in America's often wobbly union, Colorado has no shortage of shameful racist history. In the 1920s and 1930s, Denver’s mayor — Ben Stapleton — was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, as were other notable public figures in the state. The controversy over Stapleton's Klan affiliation continues: Some argue that Denver's Stapleton neighborhood, built on the site of the old Stapleton International Airport, should be renamed.
But Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman -- set in Colorado Springs -- doesn't derive its power exclusively from the state's shameful past. In telling the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, Lee turns a glaring spotlight on a moment that has relevance in the deeply troubled present. Post Charlottesville, it's no longer possible -- if it ever has been -- to give hate-group activities the security of historical shelter.
No stranger to controversy, Lee can be both a cinematic agitator and a gifted filmmaker. Often he’s both — and in the same movie. He's able to mix the stark strokes of agitprop with softer dramatic tones; he can allow for nuance and humor or he can ignore dramatic shading entirely. The approach makes sense when Lee works in areas in which clear racial lines are drawn, the most famous example being Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, now 29 years old.
With BlacKkKlansman — co-written by Lee and three other writers -- Lee has hold of another story that allows him to address racial issues in a way that's volatile, telling and sharply attuned to the tragic absurdity of unleashed bigotry and ignorance.
As the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) faced racism from some of his co-workers but found his niche as an undercover officer. His work in exposing the Klan began when he responded by phone to a newspaper ad seeking KKK recruits.
Eventually, Stallworth even spoke with white supremacist David Duke (Topher Grace), then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Obviously, infiltrating the Klan required face-to-face contacts that Stallworth couldn’t make. Enter fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In meetings with Klan members, Zimmerman posed as Stallworth, another bit of deception because Zimmerman happened to be Jewish, not a favored group among Klansmen.
Early on, Lee connects Stallworth's story to period realities about race. Sent to a speech by Kwame Ture -- formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) -- Stallworth finds himself in the awkward position of being a "spy" who’s not necessarily at odds with Ture’s analysis of America's racial situation.
Stallworth's presence at Ture's speech in itself qualifies as racially suspect: The Colorado Springs police worried that Ture would inspire violent protests among the city’s black population.
Let me leap ahead: Perhaps because he's both a storyteller and commentator, Lee concludes his movie with footage of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., the white supremacist rally that Donald Trump tried to address evenhandedly with his good-people-on-both-sides comments.
Let's be honest, there aren’t two sides to a story of bluntly expressed racism that, in BlacKkKlansman, is directed at the African-American students of Colorado College. One of those students (Laura Harrier) also becomes a romantic interest for Stallworth, a man grappling with conflicting identities. He understands racism as well as anyone but is also reluctant to accept his comrades as “pigs," lest he is branded with the same label. Initially, he doesn't tell Harrier's character that he's a cop.
Washington, son of Denzel Washington, handles the movie’s double-identity requirements with simmering anger and wit. He and an excellent Driver don’t become immediate soul mates, which seems entirely realistic. They’re both doing their jobs. Driver plays a Jew without a strong Jewish identity. He hasn't given much previous thought to racism.
This being a Lee movie — Jordan Peele of Get Out fame produced — you won't find many subtly expressed ideas; the defense for the movie’s lack of nuance becomes obvious: When dealing with Klansmen, nuance would not only be superfluous but a notably stupid form of moral temporizing.
And, yes, Lee uses the absurdity of Stallworth’s situation to give the movie a variety of humorous scenes. When Duke visits Colorado Springs, Stallworth is assigned the task of guarding him. He even convinces Duke to pose for a picture with him, the city's only black policeman.
Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the scariest of the racist Klansmen, who — at one point — confronts Driver’s Flip Zimmerman with suspicions that he might be Jewish, a tensely comic scene that hinges on whether Zimmerman has been circumcised. These Klansmen are in no danger of being confused with MENSA members.
Lee also adds references that link his movie to the American movie past, strategically inserting footage from Birth of a Nation, the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie that lionized the Klan, as well as from Gone with the Wind.
Lee has taken dramatic liberties to be sure -- Harrier's character is an invention and Driver's character wasn't Jewish. Overall, though, Lee does justice to a story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. Lee again puts the pedal to the metal in trying to acknowledge an ugly part of American life that shouldn’t be swept under any red, white and blue rug -- then or now.