Black Klansman is a lot of things. It’s a furious race-relations drama, a winking satire, a ‘70s cop movie (complete with the music cues that instantly evoke that era of the genre), and finds room for plenty else. Fundamentally, then, it’s a classic Spike Lee film, a powerful mishmash of tones and styles that, even with a compelling and accessible real-life central narrative, is as scattershot as anything he’s done. With Lee, though, you wouldn’t really have it any other way, and he’s still more than capable of hitting his targets time and time again, as he goes after violent racism in the USA’s past and present.
Based on a wild true story, though taking plenty of artistic license, Black Klansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop in Colorado Springs and only black member of the local chapter of the KKK. Convincing Klan members over the phone that he was a frighteningly bigoted white man, his white, Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) took the Ron Stallworth identity to infiltrate the group in person. Ron turns out to be so adept at mimicking the ideology of a neo-Nazi that he finds himself deep into the Klan structure very quickly, gaining vital access to their plans and even speaking one on one with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
With a target like the KKK, Lee doesn’t need to be subtle, and he embraces this fact with gusto. Their language and raw hatred shocks, even as they’re being made fun of, larger than life caricatures who nevertheless ring true, especially as they spout talking points that the 2018 alt-right still religiously cling to. There is some fun to be had at their expense, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz’s script never missing an opportunity to point out how stupid and profoundly boring these men are, but the comedy is mostly clouded by serious, fearsome nastiness.
Multiple tones clash throughout the first two thirds of Black Klansman, and it’s not until an extended third act set piece that everything starts to coalesce. Once all the major players are brought together (through slightly, though forgivably, contrived circumstances), tension builds and the thrills come thick and fast. You desperately want to see Ron and Flip come out on top as threats from all sides close in. There are jumpy Klan members and cops with deeply held racist assumptions, and any time the lead duo outmanoeuvre their foes, it’s incredibly cathartic.
Ron’s undercover assignment to monitor the local black student society, led by firebrand Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), is kept more on the sidelines, and it’s here, with Ron undermining African-American activism, that the film gets into murkier moral territory. There is something to be said for the odd timing of a race relations film that casts the police as the heroes, but in avoiding all the usual clichés of the ‘rookie cop’ film, Lee finds a way to semi-elegantly sidestep the problem by crafting something that feels fresh and unique.
The central dynamic between Ron and Flip is terrific, Washington and Driver possessing an easy, banterous chemistry that makes their scenes entertaining and their relationship meaningful. The ever excellent Driver adds a new string to his bow as an unflappable authority figure, and though John David Washington may not quite yet have the chops of his dad Denzel, he’s a commanding, charismatic presence with a quiet self-assurance that keeps the film steady. Topher Grace also impresses, surprisingly light on his feet in playing a true American monster and letting the script make the Trump comparisons, instead of trying to work any distracting mannerisms in himself.
Of course, the shadow of Trump-era American white supremacy is a long one, and Lee leans into that with racists insisting that they are in fact an oppressed people and rhetoric of making America great again. He even ends the film with videos of last year’s Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally and Trump’s heinous ‘both sides’-ing of the event. It’s somewhat unnecessary given how strongly the film itself makes the point that America has hardly advanced in its attitudes, but still energisingly powerful, especially with footage of Heather Heyer’s murder playing so close to a scene in which a veteran activist (played by Harry Belafonte) recalls a 1910s lynching.
Black Klansman, having already won the Grand Prix at Cannes, has been called a return to form for Lee – a statement that I think unfairly maligns the ridiculous but supremely engaging and funny Chiraq – and it is certainly his most audience and awards friendly film in over a decade. It’s one of the most obviously important films of the year and, given that it’s also so damn entertaining, should be seen by as many people as possible.