BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman ★★★★★

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is wild, powerful and electric, and absolutely one of the best movies of the year. Lee, as always, is such a master of tone, successfully fusing a fascinating detective story and an examination of the last century of racial oppression together into one thrilling experience.

One of the many joys of this film is that it’s never in a rush – Lee allows us to fully get a sense of the characters and environment of Colorado Springs (not to mention the dynamics of the specific era) before even leaping into the central Ku Klux Klan undercover mission. It’s completely necessary, for instance, to experience the entirety of Stokely Carmichael’s speech to the Colorado Springs Black Student Union near the beginning of the film. This scene not only gives us a glimpse of the rising political activism of the African-American community, but also demonstrates how Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes more in touch with what it means to be a black man in America, even as he’s just beginning his undercover work for the all-white police force.

We’re also privy to long, interior scenes in KKK territory – in living rooms and basements. These scenes feel so lived-in (and hauntingly mundane) at times, and they seem to speak to how these guys regularly hang out. It never feels anything less than authentic, and that we spend as much time in their presence as we do with the Black Student Union gives a human face to what could have been nameless evil masked by white hoods. But here these guys are, in the light of day in their home environments, consumed by their hatred and own self-inadequacies.

There’s also the truly moving admission by fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish man who pretends to be Stallworth in person when meeting with the Klansmen. He tells Stallworth he never felt Jewish growing up, nor did he ever think about it as part of his identity. Now, after going undercover and hiding his Judaism in front of white supremacists, he thinks about it all the time.

BlacKkKlansmen ends with a victory for Stallworth and Zimmerman against the Klan, but the heroic feeling dissipates as it’s clear the fight is never over – not even in Colorado Springs, where the Klan remain and are normalized by those seeking (and now winning) public office. I was truly impressed by Lee’s depiction of an extremely different environment than the New York City boroughs he frequently documents – the racial tension here is different, in some ways more subtle and in other ways far more explosive. Underneath the veneer of a peaceful mountain community lies a powder keg.

The stylistic and expressionistic flourishes that come with so much of Lee’s work are used to such great effect here – every one of his films is so alive and full of energy. He’s never made a film I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed, even as Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) and 25th Hour (2002) clearly stand as his masterpieces. I’ll now add BlacKkKlansman to that list – this is one of his best joints yet.