With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee Sounds the Alarm About America’s Past and Present

The director’s newest film follows a policeman who successfully infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, but the story it tells is also very much about the U.S. today.

A still from 'BlacKkKlansman'
Focus Features

On August 11, 2017, about a year before the release of Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, various white-nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to kick off their so-called Unite the Right rally. Racist demonstrators marched proudly in support of white supremacy, resulting in violence and the death of a counter-protestor. At the time, Lee was getting ready to make his next film, a 1970s-set true story of an African-American Colorado Springs cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The director decided he couldn’t ignore the contemporary echo of hate groups roaring back into public life, so he made that connection as loud as possible in BlacKkKlansman—to wrenching effect.

This is a film loaded with broad comedy, bold speechifying, blunt depictions of racism, and astonishing visual flair; it is a Spike Lee movie, made with the kind of artistic and political verve that recalls his best work. BlacKkKlansman has all the subtlety of a mallet to the face, but Lee’s argument begins and ends with the fact that this is an unsubtle moment in America. Why else would he conclude his movie (otherwise a period piece) with footage of the Charlottesville rally, the fighting that broke out, the intentional car crash that killed the counter-protestor Heather Heyer, and Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the white nationalists afterward?

Lee’s straightforward approach might cause some viewers to blanch and others to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the point being made. But the white nationalists’ brazenness is directly relevant to BlacKkKlansman, which hums with energy as it essays the strange and specific tale of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), whose memoir the film is based on. Stallworth’s investigation of the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK led him to interact with David Duke (Topher Grace), the then–grand wizard of the Klan who was spearheading an effort to give the group a sheen of legitimacy in the public eye.

Duke’s desire for mainstream attention, and his willingness to operate in the open, is one of the biggest parallels Lee draws to today’s hate groups. But it’s not the only thing about BlacKkKlansman that feels trenchant. Central to Stallworth’s story is his alliance with his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who attends meetings in Ron’s stead, wearing a wire and taping member activities as the duo uncovers a terrorism plot within the local KKK cell. Zimmerman’s growing acceptance of his own Jewish identity (which he has sublimated for years) is as important to Lee as Stallworth’s embrace of his blackness. BlacKkKlansman exults in the power these two men find in solidarity, with each other and with their communities; the film frequently contrasts scenes of KKK meetings (peppered with racial epithets and talk of violence) with rousing gatherings of the local Black Student Union.

The film’s best sequence comes early on: After Stallworth is hired as the first black police officer in the department’s history, he’s tasked with attending a speech by the civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael (by then known as Kwame Ture) to monitor it for subversive activity. Lee films the scene as a lightning-bolt moment of awakening for Stallworth, the camera cutting back to his face (and individual shots of other faces in the audience) repeatedly as Ture (Corey Hawkins) tells the audience to “stop running away from being black.”

BlacKkKlansman celebrates black pride as a necessary weapon against the Klan. Not long after the transformative meeting, Stallworth returns to the office and picks up the phone, calling the number listed on a KKK ad in the local paper. Adopting a friendly, avuncular “white voice,” he tells the person on the other end of the line how much he hates black people, Jews, Catholics, and every other target of the Klan’s animus, dropping in slurs any chance he gets. The ploy is brutal in its simplicity, and it works. Stallworth’s shamelessness over the phone is all he needs to join the club—but to actually appear in person, he needs Zimmerman to become “Ron Stallworth,” a card-carrying KKK member.

Much of the film’s action follows Zimmerman as he tries to blend in with the Klan, whose members include the disarmingly friendly Walter (Ryan Eggold); the nasty and aggressive Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen); and the hulking and thickheaded Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Many of their antics border on the comical, and their efforts to sniff out potential treachery are amateurish (suspecting that Zimmerman is Jewish, Ivanhoe asks to look at his penis). But the group is also buying weapons, making bombs, and associating with people in the Mafia and at NORAD. Any time their idiocy might make them seem nonthreatening, Lee leans in to remind viewers that even the most idiotic people can be dangerous.

That simple fact is why the BlacKkKlansman’s reference to the Charlottesville rally doesn’t come off as forced. Last year, the sight of men wielding tiki torches initially drew derision from some, as many were processing the larger, frightening significance of the demonstrators’ actions. In the film, Grace plays Duke with an unctuous sort of charm, and Hauser is frequently hilarious as Ivanhoe, but Lee has no qualms about letting their incessant hate speech illustrate the reality of who they are. As BlacKkKlansman draws to its tense final showdown, it’s equally slapstick and terrifying. And rather than letting the audience reassure themselves that the story is rooted in the past, Lee firmly points the film’s conclusion to the present, and to the future.