By CORY WOODROOF
Spike Lee will always be one of America’s foremost filmmakers; an explosive auteur with a jarring left hook who sizes up society and social issues with Billy Wilder’s wit and Old Testament fury.
His landmark effort Do the Right Thing is probably the best film to come out of the ’80s and sums up Lee’s directorial style perfectly. At any moment, Lee could be charming you with one of his trademark leads, pinning you to your seat with a searing conversation about race in America or knocking you out cold with a set piece that feels destined to snag a spot in the annals of great cinema moments.
No one can do what Lee can do, though some would argue the legend has dipped his toes into more off-beat waters over the years. He hasn’t had a commercial hit since 2006’s Inside Man, and some feel that’s the last time he’s made a film worthy of his backlog.
Though, with the political climate what it is now, it would feel a bit odd for Lee not to come up with a classic to react to the moment.
Lee’s bombastic, engrossing tale of undercover detective Ron Stallworth’s efforts to infiltrate the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK feels primed for a post-Charlottesville America, right down to his decision to splice in real-world footage at the film’s conclusion.
It’s not a subtle work, nor does it have any intention to be. Lee’s been harping on the malevolencies of racism through his entire filmography, and here, he takes the message and sets it against obvious villains, though uncomfortably familiar ones if you turn on the six o’clock news.
In real life, Stallworth worked alongside a fellow detective (unknown in real life, named Flip Zimmerman for the dramatization) in the late ’70s to investigate the Klan’s goings-on. The film follows the Stallworth on the ground and the Stallworth behind the scenes. Zimmerman pretends to be Stallworth in real life as a faux-recruit while the real-life Stallworth cajoles with duped KKK leadership on the phone. Indeed, the investigation begins to heat up when explosives come into play, and the partners must tighten down the ruse and stop the Klan from carrying out an attack.
Denzel Washington’s son John David stars as Stallworth and follows in his father’s footsteps with great promise. Dad is more of a pronounced presence on the screen, whereas John David takes more time to ease into a scene and build up the moment with his subtlety and care. Now, he’s still got the family charm down pat, but the young actor unleashes it in fascinating ways throughout. If Denzel is Warner Bros., John David is A24. Here, he gives Stallworth an air of deserved dignity and immense likeability. It’s a tough role for a film about tough times, and Washington gives it his best. It’s one of the year’s standout performances, easily.
Adam Driver is quite good and affecting as Zimmerman, a man slowly-but-surely beginning to realize, indeed, he’s got a stake in the investigation he’s in, and Topher Grace lays on an extra layer of yokel slime in playing real-life white supremacist and then-Klansman David Duke, who Stallworth gets the best of more than once on the phone and in person.
The script, compiled by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, is remarkably deft in wading between the humor and horror of the story (believe it or not, this film, in part, was designed as a comedy), and of course, Lee’s kinetic direction couldn’t be a better fit for the proceedings. A final 30-minute climax mixes together the filmmaker’s ability to hammer in a message, build tension, inject cathartic humor and showcase his actors. It’s a breathless, righteous showstopper, and probably the best stretch in any 2018 film.
BlacKkKlansman wants to get you angry about the times we’re in, just as it wants you to laugh at the absurdity of the ideas driving racists and be thankful for men like Stallworth who stood firm against these threats at such a divisive time in America’s history.
Lee’s film stands as the most important title to come out of the calendar year, and it wouldn’t surprise one bit if it winds up being the best, too.