Given all the talk of Nazis and fascists and the shouts of “America First,” many Americans have spent the past couple of years experiencing whiplash, wondering how they got dragged back to the 1940s. According to Spike Lee’s new comic drama, BlacKkKlansman, liberals today aren’t alone in their bewilderment and despair. The 1970s, too, saw a backlash to the headway made during the civil rights movement. The fists raised for black power were swiftly followed by hoods donned for white power—as they were then, as they are now. Premiering on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the fatal Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, BlacKkKlansman may well be the first film to frame the Trump era as one of regression in response to the progress of the Obama years.
Based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, the film is thematically dense and narratively twisty. After becoming Colorado Springs’ first black police officer, the movie version of Ron (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) lands an undercover assignment to infiltrate the organization the precinct captain believes to be the greatest threat to national security: the Black Panther Party. After Kwame Ture (Straight Outta Compton star Corey Hawkins), born Stokely Carmichael, leaves town after a rousing talk, a slightly more politically attuned Ron stumbles into his next assignment. Spotting a classified ad for the Ku Klux Klan in the newspaper, he calls them up, seemingly on impulse. That call turns out to be as fateful as a call can be. Ron arranges a getting-to-know-you meeting with the Klan, with a white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (a picture-stealing Adam Driver), to appear in his stead, for obvious reasons. A later mix-up resulting in membership delays puts the real Ron in contact with David Duke (a Ned Flanders–channeling Topher Grace, in an inspired casting choice). With motivations that aren’t clear (a frustrating aspect of BlacKkKlansman is Ron’s emotional opacity, with Washington unable to make up for the flaws of the script), the real Ron continues to speak to the local Klansmen over the phone while catfishing the politically aspirant Duke as his ostensibly white friend.
What follows are long stretches of time embedded with the Klan, which feel not unlike being marooned for a couple of hours on 4chan or r/The_Donald. Because a paranoid Klan member named Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) suspects, correctly, that Flip is Jewish, the undercover detective is forced to outdo the white supremacists’ racism and anti-Semitism. The Holocaust never happened, scoffs Felix. Actually, retorts the fake Ron, it did happen, and it was a “most beautiful” event. As with the famous montage of slurs in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which the writer-director liked enough to reprise in 25th Hour, it’s unclear whether Lee means these scenes to be shocking or accurate, or if there’s a meaningful difference in this case. The sometimes unnerving suspense over whether the hair-trigger Felix—mollified somewhat by the friendly, relatively normal Klan recruiter (Ryan Eggold) and a mouth-breathing hanger-on (Paul Walter Hauser, reprising his own performance from I, Tonya)—will discover Flip’s true ethnic identity elevates the Klan scenes from sheer races to the bottom. But it’s also worth asking what purpose it serves to portray white supremacist groups as mostly dopey or sociopathic—i.e., as outliers—when Trump enjoys an approval rating of more than 40 percent.
In contrast to recent period pieces like American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Post that reexamined the past through a modern lens, BlacKkKlansman uses history to illustrate how we’re repeating it. Deliberate anachronisms (like a reference to “superpredators” in a 1950s anti-integration video hosted by a Southern eugenicist played by Alec Baldwin) mix with recently recycled slogans (Reagan’s “Let’s make America great again,” Charles Lindbergh’s aforementioned “America first,” which has long been popular among the KKK) to emphasize the cyclicality of the openness of hate. We see other kinds of racial pushback in the characters (not always Klan members) who complain about how Archie Bunker made racism uncool and how many more people of color there are on TV these days—a whine with too many echoes in the present day. Lee’s implicit argument that these reactionary anxieties are nothing new certainly resonates—and is clear long before an epilogue that consists of news footage of the Charlottesville protests, including graphic video of the killing of Heather Heyer.
Amid such ugliness, the movie’s rare moments of respite are desperately welcome, particularly as the Klan prepares its own Charlottesville-esque violence in Colorado Springs. In their sights is the real Ron’s love interest Patrice (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Laura Harrier, who is 28 but somehow still looks too young for the part), the head of a nearby black student union. Lee demonstrates an off-putting casualness when he cuts straight from a scene of a white cop groping her to a vibrant dance sequence set to Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” but the scene at the gilded disco proves infectious anyway. (The score too, by longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, is typically fantastic.) The longish speeches by Hawkins and Harry Belafonte, playing an elder activist, are moving. But nothing feels quite as fresh as the parody (or is it reality?) of the Klan’s bureaucratic banalities (hoods, one member notes, are not covered by the annual membership fee) and earnest solemnity (Duke whitesplains to Ron the difference between how white people and black people talk). For a deliciously long time, Lee tantalizes us with the inevitable moment when the real Ron will reveal to Duke his actual race. The filmmaker’s studious parallels make BlacKkKlansman’s messages vital. Ron’s pranks make them bearable.