The modern American right wing has a peculiar obsession with cosplay—1950s business attire, sagging militia gear, and the tea party’s tricorne hats. They’ve mothballed the Klan robes, though. They’re out of fashion. The Klan wears salmon shorts and deck shoes now.
Upon the first anniversary of Unite the Right—the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville where a man drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring many others—the alt-right will march again this week, in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, in weaker numbers. They’ll be sure to avoid seeing Spike Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, out Friday, based on the black policeman Ron Stallworth’s autobiographical account of his joining the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s and going undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. BlacKkKlansman is largely comedy, but even in the movie’s most dramatic stretches, Lee robs the Klan and its many costumed peers of their mystical designs. The horrors are real. The politics are farce.
In Lee’s movie, Stallworth’s investigation is a mischievous ensemble effort. John David Washington plays the ambitious detective recruited by the police chief to desegregate the police department. Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, the rigid white boy who partners with Stallworth despite his cautious, stubborn judgment. Through an unprofessional turn of events, Stallworth ingratiates himself with the KKK chapter leader, Walter Breachway, played by Ryan Eggold, via phone and pledges to join the organization. Of course, Stallworth’s true race is prohibitive, so Zimmerman is enlisted in the scheme to embody Stallworth in person, as a white man, while the real Stallworth maintains the phone ruse. There’s some awkward coordination involved. Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman infiltrate the local Klan chapter through a series of high jinks that suffice as undercover police work. There’s Zimmerman’s shaky impersonation of Stallworth. There’s Stallworth’s deep, double cover. There are wire work and lie-detector tests at gunpoint. But it’s more Rush Hour than serious, dramatized police work. Essentially, Stallworth’s investigation proceeds as a series of humorous outtakes.
BlacKkKlansman is surprisingly goofy for an autobiographical account of the Ku Klux Klan. If Inside Man is a heist drama with uncanny comedic flourishes, all forming a great portrait of modern New York City, then BlacKkKlansman is the inverse; a blaxploitation flick that Lee sporadically imbues with the significance of historical drama. (The BlacKkKlansman score recycles some of the composer Terence Blanchard’s themes from Inside Man, too.) For instance, the Klansmen rarely wear their signature robes. There is far more footage of uniformed police officers intimidating black people, including their colleague Stallworth, than there is footage of uniformed Klansmen; and when they do wear the uniforms, they’re assembled together to watch The Birth of a Nation in private or burn a cross under the additional cover of darkness. But Lee does not afford the Klan those robes for long. Indeed, BlacKkKlansman chronicles the professionalization of the Ku Klux Klan. Topher Grace plays David Duke, the Grand Wizard turned national director of the organization, as a public-office-seeking wonk who makes his segregationist political outlook sound like congressional budget reform. Stallworth, having already endeared himself to Breachway and the rest of the local Klan faction, strikes up a running correspondence with Duke via phone. Stallworth takes some perverse joy in toying with Duke and hearing him outline his astoundingly trite thoughts about black people and white supremacy. There’s a prevailing sense that Duke’s ideas don’t matter in any particular sense; he exists only to extract and refine the indecent passion of countless bigots to launch his own egocentric political stardom.
The film’s characters are hardly as dynamic as some of the early setup suggests. In the first scene, Stallworth brings up his mixed feelings about the U.S. war in Vietnam and suggests he’s rebellious enough to at least hint at hypothetical retribution in the face of hypothetical discrimination among his new colleagues. Stallworth is, by all accounts, down. For his first undercover assignment, he must attend a civil rights rally, led by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), who addresses an auditorium full of student protesters with long and passionate remarks about self-esteem and black liberation. Here, Stallworth seems to briefly view Ture as a savior. He also meets his soon-to-be girlfriend, Patrice (Laura Harrier), a student activist leader who repeatedly questions Stallworth’s commitment to the radical black liberation cause. Their relationship is fun, but unresolved. Patrice is a cartoon activist, and Stallworth is a cartoon policeman; they don’t inform each other so much as bounce off each other in flirtatious rhythm. The lovebirds talk about their respective outlooks on black culture, white power, policing, and civil rights. They eat romantic dinners and take long walks together, exploring their fundamental contrast. But they never get to the bottom of Stallworth’s high regard for policing despite everything he’s learned about its violent, racialized indignities.
The movie’s one existential curiosity is Flip, the counterfeit Stallworth, the white boy who struggles to resolve his conception of whiteness and his indifference toward the Ku Klux Klan with the late-life realization that he’s Jewish. Driver’s own heritage is a black box, so the Flip character spoofs conversations about the actor who plays him. Flip’s political ambivalence is so dynamic, and so elevated by Driver’s ponderous performance, that his most verbose scene marks the movie’s sharp, unexpected turn from pure comedy to substantial character development.
Well, there’s a second turn—the movie’s bummer conclusion. Righteously, Lee refuses to end the movie with Stallworth’s minor victory over the local Klan chapter. Sadly, the police chief disbands the investigation team and instructs the boys to destroy their findings. Budget cuts, we’re told. But Lee doesn’t even end the movie there. He concludes with a sad, long montage of post–Donald Trump politics, culminating with the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Initially, it seems too artless to end this comedy with a somber rumination on Charlottesville; the sudden recognition of the real culprits, and their victims, is unwelcome in the extreme. But then Lee dwells on the footage for so long that the very recent history does indeed begin to harmonize with Kwame Ture’s awkwardly long and intense remarks in the movie’s first act. It also recalls later, prolonged remarks from the fictional activist Jerome Turner, played by the real activist Harry Belafonte, reminiscing about a black martyr cut down in his prime. The movie’s odd, imposing conclusion throws so much of the preceding comedic experience into stunning relief. BlacKkKlansman is this goofy movie about a karate-happy Afro cop fighting Klansmen who can’t get it together. But as far as escapism goes, BlacKkKlansman is about as timely and responsible as Spike Lee gets.