Spike Lee comes in the with final great movie of the summer with BlacKkKlansman. It is an interesting mixture of tones and subjects that manages to be both entertaining and enlightening. The movie has powerful performances and still sadly relevant subject matter for a movie set 40+ years in the past. There is some unevenness, but the whole thing is an unforgettable experience.
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is at first relegated to the files room, but soon they need him to lead an undercover operation into a black student activist group. From there he gets promoted and ends up in the intelligence division. In his new job he cold calls the KKK to start looking into their activities. He is successful, but he used his real name. That starts a new undercover operation with Flip (Adam Driver) playing Stallworth in public while Ron keeps up his connection over the phone. They work together to infiltrate the group and stop a bombing the KKK has planned.
There is a lot more going on than just the plot. Lee sets up parallels between the black student union activities, and black power movement, and the KKK, showing the surface similarities and more crucially the deep differences. There are the comparisons between the two cops central to this investigation as Flip is Jewish and Ron black. It is also just delightfully entertaining, with some 70’s style on top of what is, outside of its heavy themes, as delightfully fun cop movie. Driver shows once again how great an actor he is. Topher Grace is good as a delightfully contemptible David Duke. John David Washington gives what should be a star making performance; we will see more of him. The movie also has one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen, as it punctures the fun the movie had built up and cements connections to the problems the country is currently facing. It ends the movie with a hammer blow that left me in tears.
The only note that rings sour in the film is the scene where all of the good cops catch the bad cop in a sting operation. It just doesn’t work, especially with the captain, who has shown himself in the movie to be at best a tentative ally of the protagonists participating. The scene doesn’t work in the context of the film; it comes out of nowhere and I don’t know why it is there, knowing that that sort of cop is even today rarely punished in any way for that sort of behavior. Still, that is one short scene in a movie that is otherwise excellent.
This year has had quite a run of racially conscious movies, from Black Panther to Sorry to Bother You to Blindspotting to BlacKkKlansman. Other than Black Panther, they are not movies that were on my radar coming into this year, but all of them have turned out to be some of the best I’ve seen this year. I hope this is not a blip but the start of a trend.