1. It is probably time for Spike Lee to have his moment. Lee has gone from wunderkind to mega-celebrity to outcast to experimental artist in the wilderness to a recent widespread reappreciation, and what’s perhaps most impressive about all of this is how resolutely he has remained Spike. Spike Lee can make mainstream thrillers (Inside Man), big epic biographies (Malcolm X), strange arthouse academic exercises (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus) and intentionally provocative sticks-in-the-eye (about a dozen other movies), but they all feel uniquely his. You never forget you are watching a Spike Lee movie. Lee has shown he can do just about anything, but he’s always insistent that he do it his way, often to the detriment to his own career. He just won’t budge. And, in 2018, the world is finally starting to meet Spike Lee where he was all along. Every theme, every bit of anger, every playful set piece, every peculiar obsession, they all feel a speed with 2018 in a way they probably should have been all along. This all culminates in BlacKkKlansman, a movie that is as imperfect and wandering as almost all of Lee’s great movies but made with their same intense passion; this is a filmmaker who always matches the emotion of the occasion. It’s not a comeback: He’s been here for years.
2. BlacKkKlansman begins, in vintage Spike fashion, with a big Oliver Stone-esque set piece with a racist “scholar” named Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard (Alec Baldwin) delivering a demented bigoted speech straight to the camera, but then, for a brief while, the movie settles down to tell its real-life story. In 1970s Colorado, a man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) joins the police department and, after dealing with discrimination within the force itself, decides to go undercover and take down the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, talking to its members on the phone while using his white, Jewish partner Flip (Adam Driver) to serve as his in-person representative. The two slowly infiltrate the Colorado KKK and end up corresponding with the KKK’s grand wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who becomes so infatuated with Ron that he comes to Colorado to meet him. Meanwhile, Ron falls for a local radical (Laura Herrier) and attempts to figure out whether he can square the circle of being a good police office and a conscientious, vigilant black man.
3. This is a Spike Lee movie, so the straightforward story you might have gotten from Get Out’s Jordan Peele—who was originally going to make this film as his follow up but instead produces here—keeps taking all sorts of detours, mostly with the intent of reminding you that there’s a direct line between the shithead Klansmen of this time period and the shitheads in Charlottesville … and the White House itself. Lee shook himself out of his brief academic torpor with 2015’s Chi-Raq, a wildly unfocused but deeply passionate movie, and he evolves further here, his outrage and sadness seeping out of every frame. It can be a little on the nose sometimes—one discussion of racism in the Oval Office is so overt you half expect the word “TRUMP” to just start flashing on the screen—but Spike Lee is at his best when he’s on the nose. Lee is too urgent, too furious, to have time to lull you in with subtlety and nuance: When the house is on fire, you don’t worry about what kind of hoses you have, you just spray that shit with everything you have. Lee is shaking with rage at what he sees in the world right now, and for crissakes, he should be. His excesses don’t just seem powerful; they’re necessary. You can sort out all the particulars later: The house is on fire right now.
4. This urgency can sometimes get in the way of the story a bit, which is fascinating enough on its own. But that ends up being a strength of the film rather than a weakness; the main plotline is a port the film can keep returning to anytime its seas get a little rocky. John David Washington, a former NFL player, doesn’t have his father’s natural charisma—jeez, who does?—but he is sort of just right for the part anyway; he’s earnest and dedicated and also a little confused and kinda clumsy. His lumbering sincerity is the movie’s anchor, a man who hides his anger but still lets it drive him. (And in a pinch, you can close your eyes and think it’s Denzel anyway; their voices are nearly identical.) The best performance comes, unsurprisingly, from Driver, who finds shadings and nuance in his character that might not necessarily have been there on the page. He disguises his own anger and disgust in ways that are both dangerous and riveting. Driver has become an actor it is simply impossible to take your eyes off when he’s on screen; he ratchets up the intensity in any room merely by walking through it.
5. Lee isn’t always the steadiest at landing the plane, and the ending here feels less like all the spinning plates being guided safely to the ground and more like them all crashing gloriously all over the floor. But that’s Spike for you—that’s a feature, not a bug. The main plotline ends in a way that’s both satisfying and also a little too chaotic, but of course Lee’s not done. In case you missed all the times the movie connected the history of the Klan to the world right now, we flash forward to Charlottesville, and David Duke today, and “very fine people on both sides,” and all the politeness and movie conventions are slashed away to the furious present. This movie is unbalanced and constantly fluctuating and as uneven as you’d expect from Spike Lee, but this time that works for the film rather than against. There’s a nationwide emergency, and Spike Lee, with BlacKkKlansman is screaming in your face for action at every turn. Of course, this is what Spike Lee has been doing for 30 years. It’s just that now, we’re finally listening.
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte
Release Date: Augut 10, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.