Spike Lee’s vital importance to the history and progression of American independent cinema lies in his boldness. It’s a boldness of suppression finally set free, of ideas long-simmering brought to a boil. Historically, Spike Lee “Joints” crackled and burned with a passion and anger that was never before seen, because the people in Lee’s films were never before given voice, their environments never permitted screen time. Because the topics were so unfounded and the voice so fresh, Lee was able to flex artistically in a way that merged style and subject in order to surprise and shock in the most resonant ways. The camera could move in radical ways, the fourth wall could be broken, themes could jump off the screen, narratives could take mythic turns of the horrific or the miraculous. With that boldness comes the potential for greatness and the risk of failure, and Lee has delivered plenty of both. But it remains undeniable that Spike Lee works are alive in a way other films aren’t and could never be – they embody both the seething ferocity of oppression and the exuberance of exorcising that oppression on screen.
BlacKkKlansman fits that mold, embodying an array of contradictions that befit Lee’s wide thematic reach. It’s funny but sad, triumphant yet infuriating, a full-on period piece with a very meta-message for the present world we live in. Perhaps its most stunning contradiction is that it takes place in 1979 and yet its relevance is as acute as ever now, nearly 40 years later. The film promises this story is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t,” and, indeed, it is – Ron Stallworth was the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and he made a mark no more indelible than infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and exposing not only its abhorrent and regressive beliefs but also its insidious criminal element. It’s a remarkable story, but one that I wish could be rendered as a quaint time capsule. Instead, it’s prescient and immediate, tracing only a single early battle at the onset of a war that has sustained itself in the shadows for decades, and that was emboldened to emerge from those shadows during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Contrary to what one might assume, Stallworth (John David Washington) isn’t an angry revolutionary, but rather a humbly marginalized new officer who wants to bridge the gap between the revolutionaries and the police force that stood in opposition to them. When he attends, on assignment, a Black Power rally and embarks on a tentative relationship with fierce activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), he’s aware of the swirling conflicts at play. He’s interested in a real relationship but must willfully hide his occupation. He’s compelled by the power of the Civil Rights message, but the constraints of his job prevent him from outwardly pursuing it. It’s only on a whim that he notices a want ad in the local paper seeking recruits for a new KKK chapter in the local area. He places a call posing as a racist white guy, and in so doing stumbles on that bridge between activism and law enforcement.
What unfolds is tantamount to a tall tale, but of course, truth is always stranger than fiction. Stallworth maintains all contact over the phone, going so far as to establish a relationship with KKK “Grand Wizard” David Duke (Topher Grace) while sending reluctant colleague Flip (Adam Driver) to pose as the in-person version of “Ron.” That he was even given permission to conduct this investigation by superiors who were themselves causally racist is impressive on its own. That the investigation led to the exposure of actual plans for hate crimes and potential terrorist activity is nothing short of remarkable – although frankly, uncovering hate crimes in an organization that advocates for hate should perhaps not come as any surprise. Certainly not from a modern perspective, where the expression of hate in all its forms is advocated and encouraged in theory, then excused in practice by the highest office in the land.
Therein lies the true power of BlacKkKlansman – it is not only a past tense story but a mirror to the present. It’s a film with resonance in many forms, on many levels – a true story that is finally receiving a big-screen treatment, one whose title evokes Blaxploitation while its story charts real-life actualization of black empowerment. It paints a picture of a sneaking, tentative harmony between “black America” and “white America,” two factions in constant separation, even if by a thin, almost indistinguishable veil. But what’s most resonant is its juxtaposition of this late-‘70s story with our current 2018 reality, where the separation is somehow clearer, the veil thicker. Any “bridge” between activists and law enforcement has been burned. Institutional racism is as prevalent as ever. And rather than being snuffed out and silenced, white nationalist factions – including the KKK – have moved into the mainstream, rebranding as the “alt-right” and being referred to as “very fine people” by the president. It’s no wonder Spike Lee’s anger has not wavered, and in BlacKkKlansman he delivers a cathartic nod to the past, a frightening jolt to the present, and a galvanizing rallying cry for the future.