"Do we always have to talk politics?" a man asks. "What's more important?" a woman replies. This exchange in the new Spike Lee joint "BlacKkKlansman" sums up the director's own sweet spot as an artist. No, he doesn't always have to talk politics, but at this moment, he's feeling the responsibility... and the anger. Lee has crafted sex comedies and heartwarming nostalgia, but we like him when he's angry, and "BlacKkKlansman," for its keen sense of irony and the laughs that attend it, carries righteous anger at shameful history repeated.
Lee and co-screenwriters David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott adapt their script from Ron Stallworth's memoir "Black Klansman." Stallworth's unlikely true story finds him in 1970s Colorado becoming what a police chief calls "the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force." The film's opening scenes reveal the racism tolerated within the force as Stallworth (John David Washington, in a star-making turn) makes the case that he's undercover material. First, he's sent to infiltrate the Black Power movement at a college lecture by Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who makes some pretty reasonable sounding arguments about homicidally racist police misconduct.
One thread of "BlacKkKlansman" explores the role of police in perpetuating race violence (while also providing Stallworth an inconvenient love interest in Laura Harrier's Black Student Union progressive). But it's Stallworth's next undercover role that gives the film its stranger-than-fiction thrust: One day in the bullpen, Stallworth picks up the phone to the Ku Klux Klan, passes himself off as a white man and initiates a membership process. To crack the Klan, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) reluctantly keeps Stallworth on that phone and pairs him with Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the white face of Stallworth when face-to-face meetings are required.
What follows can be overtly funny in its absurdity. For the most part, however, "BlacKkKlansman" isn't a comedy at all, but an earnest vintage Spike Lee joint recounting history and projecting it onto our present. Lee frames the film with contextual commentary, opening with Alec Baldwin as the voice of old-school American white hate (in one Trumpian echo, Baldwin muses, "We had a great way of life...") and closing the film with video proof that hate groups endure and require our vigilance. In between, the story of Stallworth and Zimmerman's investigation highlights their differences (by skin color) and similarities (as a Jewish cop, Flip isn't exactly safe around the KKK). Of the police force's "blue wall," Flip explains, "We're a family. Right or wrong, we stick together." "That reminds me of another group," Ron replies.
By the time he arrives at a nicely tense climax involving a visit from KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (a smarmy Topher Grace), Lee has invoked African-American social and cultural history in a variety of engaging ways, including historical references (the Little Rock Nine, for one), side-eyes to cinematic influencers "Gone with the Wind" and "Birth of a Nation," and a showcase cameo role for a major black icon. It never hurts having the great American composer (and 14-time Lee collaborator) Terence Blanchard contributing invaluably to the film's emotional tone and sense of import. "BlacKkKlansman" entertains mightily, but its message also is important. And in the end, true to form, Lee sounds his latest alarm.