BlacKkKlansman is that rarest of artistic achievements: an immensely satisfying piece of commercial entertainment and a radical condemnation at once. These two forms almost never meet. Satisfying the public usually means not challenging them, and arguing a political point means risking offense. So how does any film, let alone one about race, achieve the near-impossible? It’s easy. Marry the most accomplished black filmmaker in history with the Oscar-winning black filmmaker of the moment. Spike Lee directs and Jordan Peele produces BlacKkKlansman, the engaging story of a black police officer who cleverly infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, check your pulse.
The film is a fresh burst of artistic and political energy from the aging master. Lee’s refusal to placate mainstream (read: white) audiences made him stand out early in his career, but it has been more than a decade since he’s been able to channel his sense of racial justice into anything so resonant. He’s also never had such an irresistible story to work with. In 1970s Colorado, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black cop in his town. Frustrated with his first assignment—to infiltrate and report back on the local Black Student Union, he decides to create his own assignment. He calls up the president of the local KKK, pretends to be white, and sets up a meeting as a concerned citizen. After a chat with his dispassionate police chief, he ropes in fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to team up and play the role in person.
Mayhem ensues, and for the first time in some time, Lee really seems to be enjoying it. For much of the film, BlacKkKlansman functions as a buddy cop movie, with Washington and Driver performing the racially and culturally-mismatched duo trope pioneered by Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours, and copied in Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour. Even as Flip gets in deeper with the local KKK, braving the initiation rituals of the Klan administered by one of its more unhinged members—props include a polygraph and a gun—Lee puts his desire to entertain first. Amidst the danger, there are a litany of big laughs, high-wire tension, and one giddy homage to a famous blaxploitation film of yesteryear.
It’s a shrewd strategy. The film’s embrace of commercialism allows for the gentle emergence of Lee’s real subject: the banality of bigotry. Stallworth is a fascinating character, and Washington’s charismatic performance anchors the film, but Lee insists we spend just as much time getting to know the KKK members, even when Flip isn’t around them. We see a group meeting in one of their homes, where a bubbly housewife happily serves chips and dip to the Klan. We see a husband and wife engaging in tender pillow talk about their hopes of killing black people. Amazingly, this scene is not played for laughs. Most effectively, we see Topher Grace playing young David Duke like a slightly grown-up version of Eric Forman from That ’70s Show, shaggy hair and all. If it feels like a sitcom, well, that’s the point.
While building to its tense, action-packed climax, Lee also boldly exposes the role media, especially film itself, plays in perpetuating evil. In one scene, a crew of white supremacists munch popcorn at a boisterous screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, one of the most racist films in history. In another, a character opines on the colonialist evils of Tarzan, a scene that reads as a tribute to James Baldwin’s racial critique of King Kong in his seminal essay The Devil Finds Work. Piercing and poetic, BlacKkKlansman is perhaps best understood as an evolution of Baldwin’s work, with Lee wearing the crown as one of the writer’s most worthy successors.
BlacKkKlansmen opens Friday in theaters everywhere.