If you read “Freakonomics,” you will probably remember the chapter on Superman and the Ku Klux Klan. It is about Stetson Kennedy, an author and activist who infiltrated the Klan and learned all their secrets. His brilliant move was in how he revealed what he learned: rather than a splashy news release, he helped put actual Klan secrets into Superman radio programs. The Klan was not exposed, but humiliated. Indeed, making them look like idiots is one of the best ways to hurt their cause.
BlacKkKlansmen continues in that tradition, and not just because it is a true story. Spike Lee’s latest film is broadly entertaining, and angry as hell. The cumulative effect is like a bracing cold shower, a reminder that the fight is far from over.
The film is set in 1979, a period where the Black Power movement terrified the Establishment. Instead of outright antagonism, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) wants to take over the system from within. He becomes the first black cop in Fort Collins, Colorado, and his big break is to go undercover at an event where Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) was speaking. He meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), who organized the talk and represents the more militant wing of the black power movement (of course, he falls for her immediately). The event helps Ron realize he has a flair for thinking on his feet – an invaluable part of undercover work – so he decides to use his talent on the Klan.
His method of getting into their inner circle is so stupid it must be true: he responds to their ad in the paper, and soon he is on the phone with a local recruiter. Unfortunately for Ron, he gives said recruiter his real name, so another white detective named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) pretends to be Ron IRL. Flip and Ron ingratiate themselves into the Klan’s leadership, earning the admiration of Grandmaster David Duke (Topher Grace, who plays the role like an oily insurance salesman).
Spike Lee has not made a film this entertaining in years. In fact, BlacKkKlansmen shares the affable, easygoing pace of Inside Man. Both films have languid scripts, giving the characters a chance to riff even as the story adds suspense. There are some terrific running gags, too, like the way Stallworth over-enunciates the word “white.” Since this is a film where no character is on autopilot, they have time to discuss their feelings and their politics. The most intriguing conflict is between Ron and Flip, who is Jewish. Flip insists his undercover work is not personal, while Ron suggests it has to be. Their impasse is a shrewd way of communicating to the audience.
It is a good thing BlacKkKlansmen is often fun, since the scenes with the Klan are frequently disturbing. This film is brimming with racial epithets, and misguided declarations of white supremacy. This particular chapter of the Klan is full of sad, uneducated people who see the civil rights movement as a threat to their default societal dominance. Some Klansman are more passionate than others: Paul Walter Hauser is memorable as a mouth-breathing buffoon with a propensity for violence, while Ashlie Atkinson plays a true believer. In a particularly intense scene, the Klansmen and their wives gather for a screening of The Birth of a Nation, and it serves as a reminder there is nothing quite as terrifying as a hateful, impassioned white woman.
BlacKkKlansman has a forceful, direct style to it. Lee has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and he does not care if you hate it. When the camera pushes on Carmichael, for example, you know you are meant to internalize what he is saying. The film looks great, with the soft browns and reds that helped defining the late seventies (Washington leaves a strong impression, and not just because his afro is outstanding).
Towards the end of the film, it develops the stakes of a thriller. Duke visits Fort Collins, and Stallworth gets assigned to protect him, while Flip must stay undercover as “Stallworth.” The Klan are slow to uncover the plot – they are not that stupid – and the tension is whether Flip/Ron can hold it together long enough to save the day. In a dual chase scene, Lee cuts between both men, and complicates it because Ron deals with systemic racism along the way.
Although the film is set in 1979, BlacKkKlansman is resolutely about 2018. References to Trump and his administration pepper the script. As if that were not enough, Lee ends with footage of last year’s violent Charlottesville counter-protests, with David Duke making an appearance. Lee figures that if he entertains you first, you’ll be more receptive to his anger. The release of BlacKkKlansman is meant to coincide with the anniversary of Charlottesville. If are not planning to counter-protest in DC this Sunday, there is a significant chance this will change your mind. This film wants to recruit you.