Boots Riley isn’t wrong.
The rapper-turned-filmmaker, who snuck a brilliant absurdist critique of racism and capitalism into multiplexes this summer with Sorry to Bother You, has issues with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the fact-based story of two Colorado cops, one black and one white, who infiltrated the KKK in the ’70s. By toying with history to cast the police as civil rights heroes and settling for Klan members as ready-made villains, Riley says, Lee has shirked an opportunity to challenge the assumptions of his liberal white audience.
Of course, we all know better than to expect ideological coherence from a Spike Lee movie—the filmmaker uses racial turmoil the way Jackson Pollack used paint. In fact, BlacKkKlansman is several movies that sit in uneasy opposition with one another. Yes, it’s the self-consciously crowd-pleasing comedy-drama that troubles Riley, and a fierce anti-Klan polemic as well, but it’s also a meditation on how movies can and should represent black power and black heroes that’s consistently self-aware of film’s ability to manipulate our emotions.
BlacKkKlansman is an adaptation of a memoir by Ron Stallworth, the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. We see the sharp-dressed, prominently Afro’d rookie (played here by John David Washington) score his first undercover assignment, infiltrating a Stokley Carmichael rally he finds unexpectedly appealing and meeting a student radical named Patrice (Laura Harrier) he finds even more so. Then, one day he cold calls the local KKK chapter expressing an interest in its mission and is unexpectedly asked to join. White (and Jewish) cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent in to impersonate him as the real Stallworth does his work by phone, eventually chatting with Grand Wizard David Duke himself.
While the Klan members are often played for laughs, they’re not utter bumblers, and if Stallworth’s integrationist cop saves the day, Patrice’s principled opposition to “pigs” is given equal rhetorical footing. Best of all is Adam Driver, who remains a startling iceberg of an actor, concealing depths of anger and confusion beneath an opaque scowl. And the inevitable dolly shot—you know, that moment in every Spike Lee joint when his characters inexorably approach the screen as though transported by conveyor belt—hasn’t felt so pregnant with earned fatalism since Malcolm X.
Stallworth’s story is bookended by two didactic segments. BlacKkKlansman opens with Alec Baldwin as a racist Cold War era professor shooting a white nationalist newsreel that’s interspersed with clips of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And Lee uses documentary footage of the white rage and brutality at Charlottesville in 2017 as both a climax and a coda. He isn’t just reminding us that white nationalism never went away—he’s bracketing his adaptation of Stallworth’s memoir as an action story with a polemical aim, just like Griffith’s racist epic had been.
Maybe, he seems to suggest, his use of Charlottesville is as much propaganda as the Baldwin film—and if that’s what it takes to crush white supremacy, why shouldn’t it be?
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Theater: Now playing, area theaters