Spike Lee has been waking up audiences, white and black, for years before being “woke” entered the mainstream (i.e., white) lexicon — so it’s not surprising to see how “woke” his new movie, “BlacKkKlansman,” is in its fascinating and intense depiction of a too-fantastic-for-fiction story of a black police detective infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s the early ‘70s, and Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) applies for a job as a cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. A city councilman (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) tells him he’ll be the department’s Jackie Robinson, and will endure racist taunts inside and out of the police force.
As a rookie in the records department, Stallworth stands up to the casual racism of an older officer (Frederick Weller), but keeps his cool. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) assigns him to the undercover unit. His assignment is to attend and monitor a speech by the activist and former Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who was going by the African-inspired name of Kwame Ture.
It’s at this speech that Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the proud head of Colorado State University’s Black Student Union. Stallworth and Dumas start dating, having passionate conversations about black liberation and the merits of “Shaft” vs. “Superfly.” What they don’t talk about, because Stallworth doesn’t tell her, is what he does for a living.
One day, reading the classifieds, that he sees a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth calls the number and makes contact with Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the Klan’s local chapter president. The comical opening phone call, in which Stallworth declares his hatred for blacks and other ethnic groups, is reminiscent of the scenes in Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” in the way Washington deploys his “white voice” to allay Breachway’s suspicions. Soon, Walter is asking Stallworth to meet in person, to continue the conversation.
For obvious reasons, a face-to-face meeting would be problematic, but Stallworth offers a creative solution: Get a white detective to pose as Stallworth for the in-person meetings. That duty falls on Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who reluctantly takes on the assignment. Zimmerman argues with Stallworth that “to you, this is a crusade; to me, it’s just a job” — to which Stallworth responds that Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew who wears a Star of David necklace, shouldn’t “act like you don’t have skin in the game.”
As Zimmerman gets inside the homes of Klan members, Stallworth over the phone gets inside their heads. He even gets chatting with the Klan’s top national official, the Grand Wizard, David Duke. Yes, that David Duke. Topher Grace portrays Duke with all the seductive menace and white-supremacist arrogance one would expect in someone who has made a life of trying to intellectualize bigotry and hate.
Lee — partnering again with Kevin Willmott (“Chi-Raq”), rewriting a script begun by first-timers Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, adapting Stallworth’s memoir — uses Stallworth’s strange-but-true story to explore the struggles of black people navigating a white world, and to confront white viewers with that struggle. Lee doesn’t mince words, as when Stallworth’s sergeant (Ken Garito) suggests that Duke or someone who talks like him someday could harness fear and hatred to win the presidency.
Lee also harnesses a century of racism in film history, from “Gone With the Wind” to “The Birth of a Nation” — which Duke screens at a Klan initiation event, as Klansmen and their wives cheer and chomp popcorn. And for those who would dismiss such images as mere entertainment, he brings out Harry Belafonte — still fighting the good fight at 91 — to narrate the true story of Jesse Washington, lynched and burned in Waco, Texas, which some believe was inspired by “The Birth of a Nation,” released a year before.
John David Washington captures Stallworth’s frustration at the racist system that he has joined in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and his righteous glee at being able to use that system to battle back against white supremacists. Washington’s performance is so good that it won’t be long until critics stop referring to him as “Denzel Washington’s son” and start referring to Denzel as “John David Washington’s dad.”
And, in case the audience doesn’t connect the dots or feels complacent about this story being safely tucked in the 1970s, “BlacKkKlansman” finishes with current events. Lee plays back the footage of last year’s white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the vehicular homicide death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, the hate-spewing rhetoric of David Duke and the equivocation of President Donald Trump declaring that there are “very fine people” among the torch-wielding racists. Lee's scorching conclusion reminds us all of something about which we shouldn’t need to be reminded: Racism isn’t just in the past, but the present.
Opening Friday, August 10, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references. Running time: 135 minutes.