This is America
The new “Spike Lee joint,” BlacKkKlansman, might be the best film he’s ever done. It’s a period-piece action movie of sorts, but of course it’s also much more than that: a stark appraisal of race and American social history; an undercover police story set in the 1970s with historical references ranging from the recrudescence of the KKK circa World War I to the white supremacists of Charlottesville, Va., in our own time; a nifty roundelay about self and American identity; a half-comic epic that entertains without ever losing sight of its most serious and urgent concerns.
The central story premise has to do with the actual case of a black police officer named Ron Stallworth who successfully infiltrated a KKK chapter in Colorado in the late-1970s. Stallworth (versatile John David Washington) talked his way into the group via telephone calls, then shadowed a fellow undercover cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who pretended to be the “white Aryan” that Stallworth’s telephone tirades led the Klan group to expect in face-to-face meetings.
Washington and his director give Stallworth’s perilous, two-part masquerade a frisky picaresque note or two, but the racial tensions are at times ferocious and there is an extraordinarily intimate and riveting quality of suspense in the moments in which the guile and daring of Stallworth and Zimmerman put them in danger of all-out misadventure. For those two in particular, not blowing your cover and staying true to yourself are convoluted and highly fraught endeavors.
Something similar is true as well for Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a college radical who bonds, briefly but dramatically, with Stallworth. Topher Grace is deadpan ironic as David Duke. Corey Hawkins is complex and superb as Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture). Robert John Burke (as Police Chief Bridges) and Ryan Eggold (as Klan honcho Walter Breachway) make particularly notable contributions, as do Alec Baldwin and Harry Belafonte as two contrasting kinds of public speakers.