Spike Lee's BlackKKlansman is one of the most prescient films of 2018. John David Washington (Ron) and Adam Driver (Flip) star as undercover cops who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs circa 1970s. How do they do it? Washington talks over the phone with KKK wizard David Duke while Driver appears as the physical manifestation of the voice. The film deals with race in post-Civil Rights America, including a white nationalist movement re-branding itself, racism within police departments, and African-American and Jewish-American identity. While it's one of the funniest movie of the year, the film also engages with history and the power of cinema to shape cultural memory on a much deeper level than most mainstream films.
First and foremost, BlacKKKlansman is a wildly entertaining movie with sharp dialogue combined with a sense of dread of the past shaping an undefined future. The film opens with the most iconic shot from Gone With the Wind and then transitions to Alec Baldwin portraying a terrifyingly racist Southerner who wants to make a propaganda film about Martin Luther King.
There's a sense that something changed in the 1970s, America had survived the 60s and there was a sense of progress being made, yet at the same time little had changed. Despite the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, racism remained deeply ingrained within American culture. Enter David Duke, played by Topher Grace in a memorable performance. Duke wanted to remake the Klan as cultured and educated "interest group." The white robes and hoods were discarded in favor of suits and ties. Grace plays Duke as a banal man who makes corny jokes who happens to be a white supremacist.
Washington and Driver are likable on the screen as 70s cops, but something about their characterizations lack dimension. Flips must confront his Jewish heritage for the first time when he encounters antisemitism, but it's never explored in much depth. The same with Ron, well played by Washington, but something of a cipher. There's perhaps an unconscious Quentin Tarantino influence going on (aware of the ongoing feud between Tarantino and Lee), in the sense that character development gets downplayed in favor of riveting stand alone set pieces.
Lee wants to make a statement about today through the prism of the 1970s, made apparent on a scene that pays homage to Blaxploitation movies of the decade. Scenes and even some throwaway lines are aimed directly at today. America's history of racism and the harsh truths are leveled at the audience, especially in a scene featuring Harry Belafonte as he bears witness to a lynching his character witnessed, juxtaposed with Duke laying his devious vision for the future leaves a haunting impression.
As Lee intended, we walk away from BlacKKKlansman feeling uneasy as the final images cascade across the screen (the audience at the show I attended fell in to a deafening silence.) A confrontational film that only the most cynical would dismiss as propaganda, it rises to the current moment. As other reviews have pointed out, it's a long overdue response to Birth of a Nation.