BlacKkKlansman is at once a sober, based-on-fact historical drama and a riotously funny prank. In recreating the 1979 police investigation of a Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—an investigation led by a black detective who posed on the phone as a Klan recruit—director Spike Lee gives a shocking amount of screen time to the espousing of white supremacist rhetoric. Yet when that ideology is filtered through an African-American actor’s mouth and Lee’s particular cinematic style, it results in something absurdly, comically pathetic. By pantomiming the KKK’s logic—painting it in whiteface, if you will—BlacKkKlansman exposes such thinking for what it really is: patently false and blatantly idiotic.
That’s not to say the movie is naive enough to pretend the KKK is toothless. Indeed, the investigation quickly reveals that a terrorist plot of some kind is in the works. And so detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) needs a white counterpart to pose as him in person and get a first-hand look at the chapter’s inner workings. Another detective (Adam Driver) gets the job, and soon their scheme—a farcical, racially charged twist on Cyrano de Bergerac—is put into motion.
The undercover sequences have a scary tension, while the scenes of Stallworth talking to Klan members on the phone offer preposterous comic relief. As Stallworth, sitting at his police desk boasting a confident 1979 Afro, starts ranting about how he hates “anyone who doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins,” his colleagues slowly spin their chairs his way in confusion. The Klan members on the other end of the line—including, eventually, David Duke himself, played as a vile doofus by Topher Grace—gobble up the hate as quickly as Stallworth can dish it out. When Duke tells Stallworth, “I’m happy to be talking to a true white American,” the camera cuts to Stallworth’s face and it’s as if you’re watching Sacha Baron Cohen work for a special investigations unit.
Washington, who appeared in Lee’s Malcolm X and more recently on HBO’s Ballers, gives Stallworth a delightfully dry sense of humor. On the phone, using his best “white voice” (to reference Sorry to Bother You), he mostly maintains a straight face, but you can also see a bit of a smirk. It’s a variation on what he has to do every day in the police department, where he faces constant casual racism. (When the smirk doesn’t provide enough catharsis, he finds a quiet corner to do karate chops in the air.) Stallworth’s struggle to balance his career goals with his identity as a black man become more pronounced when he meets and falls for a college activist named Patrice (Laura Harrier). Unaware that he’s a cop, she isn’t shy about her distaste for the police. Underneath its larger concerns, then, BlacKkKlansman is also an exploration of what “selling out” means for a black man in oppressive America, another thing it shares in common with Sorry to Bother You. (There’s a pointed reference at one point to W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of “double consciousness.”) By simply joining the police force, is Stallworth also using his white voice?
BlacKkKlansman is also an exploration of what “selling out” means for a black man in oppressive America.
With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee uses his own white voice, for subversive purposes. Consider the many scenes chock-full of racist rhetoric. There is a jarring prologue in which an apopleptic Alec Baldwin plays a white nationalist spokesman who stumbles his way through a propagandistic recruitment film (he literally chokes on the vile words he’s trying to spit out). At the Klan meetings in Colorado Springs, the members work each other into a froth of hate speech (it’s just a hair away from what can be heard in Donald Trump’s rally speeches). Then there is a climactic initiation ceremony for the new Klan members that plays at once like a clown show and a religious ceremony. The ill-fitting robes and hoods are ridiculous; the prayers offered are blasphemous.
Yet even as Lee gives ample screen time to blatant racism, he shoots these scenes in his usual, heightened style: the extreme camera angles and bold color choices that we’ve come to associate with his particular brand of black consciousness cinema. The result is an intentionally jarring case of intellectual dissonance. Serving as ironic meta-commentary on the words we hear, the filmmaking exposes white supremacist ideology as the emperor’s new clothes—a last refuge for a paranoid demographic struggling to maintain a societal dominance that was never deserved.
At other points in BlacKkKlansman, we see Lee employing his techniques in more familiar ways. He pulls out his signature, gliding dolly shot for a moment with Stallworth and Patrice cautiously move down the hallway of her apartment building toward a window, through which they see a burning cross. During that Klan initiation ceremony, Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown occasionally cut away to a group of African-American students at a nearby campus rally. Eventually the edits boil down to a deeply disturbing back and forth of parallel chants: “White power!” “Black power!” More comforting—indeed, deeply moving—is an experimental flourish thrown in during a speech given by Civil Rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). As Ture recounts the beautiful physical features of African-Americans, Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin cut to stylized portrait tryptichs, in which sets of faces from the crowd are softly lit and arranged against a dark black background. In a movie of harsh language and loud laughs, it’s a moment of gorgeous quiet.
Not all of the movie is so elegant. There is a cartoonishly racist cop (Ken Garito) on the Colorado Springs force who makes Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri look like a beacon of realism. And the epilogue is bizarrely rushed. Within a handful of scenes, Stallworth goes from being praised for his investigation (to outlandish degrees) to having the case taken away from him. Yet these are hiccups in an otherwise wildly funny and performatively provocative film. BlacKkKlansman is a joke that sticks in your throat, as well as a necessary examination of blight history (those shameful marks on the American record when “white history” and “black history” awfully intersect). The film ends with footage from the 2017 Charlottesville rally, in which the sort of hateful rhetoric usually espoused in hiding was proudly shouted in the public square, with no condemnation from the powers that be. BlacKkKlansman recognizes that while white supremacy may indeed be a ludicrous refuge for small, evil minds, it’s still alive, well, and all-too-welcome.