In one scene in “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee shows us two Americas, forever divided by the stories they tell about themselves. He cuts back and forth between two gatherings, one of a group of African-American students, the other of Ku Klux Klansmen. Both are in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s, probably just a couple of miles away from each other.
The students are listening to an elderly activist (Harry Belafonte) recounting how, as a boy, he saw his mentally challenged best friend tortured and lynched by a white mob, the town gathered around as if it were a national holiday. The Klansmen are watching “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist 1915 film that portrayed the Klan as heroic defenders of Southern heritage, beating back villainous freed slaves backed by conniving Northern aggressors.
The students gasp in shock. The Klansmen eat popcorn and cheer.
It’s a sobering, chilling divide, not just between black and white but between decency and horror, truth and lies. And Lee somehow manages to confront the nation’s darkness in a film that’s also wildly entertaining. “BlacKkKlansman” is funny and audacious and even thrilling, one of Lee’s best in a long time. But while it is telling an incredible true story, it also has its eye firmly on the bigger story of America’s past and present. And it is angry.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) has the dubious honor of being the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department. After languishing in the records room, he gets himself transferred to the undercover unit, where he’s given his first assignment: infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael to the local black student union, and report on what he sees.
At the speech, we see how blue and black struggle to co-exist within Stallworth. He’s swept up by the power of Carmichael’s call for black liberation, but the next day he goes into work and dutifully reports on what he saw. He believes he can change the system from inside it, while an activist he meets and starts dating (Laura Harrier) sees that perspective as a dangerous folly.
Perhaps feeling guilty for informing on fellow African-Americans, Stallworth gives himself a more daring and morally blameless assignment — infiltrate the local Klan chapter. They’re not tough to find, since the Klan is bold enough to put an ad in the paper. He calls them up and starts chatting about white power to the guy who answers.
He wins over their trust, but obviously can’t meet them in person. So he enlists a fellow undercover detective named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play Ron Stallworth in person while Stallworth will play him on the phone. (Yes, he uses his real name, which causes problems later.)
It’s a lot of fun to watch the two Rons fool the local Klansmen, a collection of doofuses and sociopaths who Lee makes fun of without letting us forget how dangerous and hateful they are. Stallworth even finds himself having heart-to-hearts on the phone with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace, comic and chilling). As Stallworth and Zimmerman move higher in the Klan’s ranks and catch wind of a potential terrorist plot, they put themselves at greater risk of being found out.
While “BlacKkKlansman” has all the pleasures of a ‘70s genre film, recalling “Serpico” or “The French Connection,” Lee rattles as well as entertains us, sounding the alarm about the parallels to today’s worrisome world. When Duke expresses a desire to “help America achieve greatness again,” it’s no mystery which hat slogan is being paraphrased. At the end of the film, the flames of a burning cross dissolve queasily into the torches carried by white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, one year ago this weekend.
The hate bubbling up in America in 2018 may seem like a new threat, but Lee urgently warns us that it’s an old story. “BlacKkKlansman” is an impassioned appeal to see it for what it is, for what it always has been, before it’s too late.