Though Spike Lee has continued to do highly personal, passionate work throughout his 32-year career, some of the films have been, admittedly, hit-and-miss.
But there’s no question about his latest, “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s one of his best, easily ranking among “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls,” “25th Hour” and “When the Levees Broke.”
Both entertaining and incendiary, “BlacKkKlansman” tells an incredible true story.
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is a black man who joins the Colorado Springs Police Department and quickly works his way up to detective.
During his first assignment, he “infiltrates” a black power rally and meets activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who hates cops; so he tells her little white lies about his job.
Meanwhile, back in the office, almost on a whim, he calls the number in a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan.
Pretending to be a white supremacist on the phone (with his “white voice,” shades of “Sorry to Bother You”), he asks for more information, but the man on the line wants to meet.
So Ron goes to his sergeant to get permission to pursue it further — using a white officer, “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), as his undercover stand-in.
The ruse continues as Ron/Flip rises through the KKK ranks, eventually hoping to meet the “grand wizard” David Duke (played squirm-inducingly well by Topher Grace), and, at the same time, prevent a possible bombing.
Lee boldly opens “BlacKkKlansman” with an image from “Gone with the Wind,” but he is far more preoccupied with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” and the way its extraordinary popularity 100 years ago unexpectedly breathed new life into the old racist organization.
Images from Griffith’s film permeate “BlacKkKlansman,” but never more so than in the powerful, cross-cut sequence wherein Ron/Flip attends a solemn, terrifying confirmation ceremony, donning the malevolent hoods for the first time.
Afterward, the KKK members enjoy a screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” whooping and hollering and cheering on the white characters, while elsewhere, at a gathering of black civil rights activists, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) tells a group of black civil rights activists harrowing tales of white-on-black violence.
Further enthralled by the power of film, Lee also includes a kind of 1960s-era industrial film, in the process of being shot — complete with outtakes and flubbed lines — featuring one Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) preaching fear and hate toward blacks.
Images and references to “Blaxploitation” movies like “Shaft,” “Superfly” and “Coffy” also pop up; characters discuss them for what they are: a mix of black power and black exploitation.
Lee uses his camera to emphasize and highlight the beauty of black humans, including close-ups of facial features and big hair during the rally, and a dancing sequence immediately following.
He also allows the white characters to be nuanced; they exist in a wide cross-section, and are not all evil. Some of Ron’s fellow police officers are happy to call him a colleague; others are nasty to him.
Flip, in particular, is fascinating. In a great scene, he explains that, though he was born Jewish, he was not raised as such and has never really thought much about it — until being surrounded by the KKK’s racial and cultural hatred.
“BlacKkKlansman” wraps up with startling news footage from recent years, examples of blatant racism, unchanged, in everyday life. It closes with one of the most defiant images of Lee’s career, an upside-down American flag that fades to black-and-white.
Lee, now in his 60s, hasn’t lost his fire and fury, or his vibrant signature style. But here, his ferocious energy is also coupled with thoughtfulness; he takes a step back to see how things fit together, rather than simply rages.
Moments, such as when Ron suddenly hugs David Duke as a photo is being snapped, are loaded with deeper meanings. Virtually every scene has a duality that demands rational thought and discussion.
Even though it sings with the funky energy of the 1970s, “BlacKkKlansman” is absolutely current. Among all the movies that have become supercharged by the terror of our modern times, it’s arguably the most essential yet.
Starring: John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Written by: Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott
Directed by: Spike Lee
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes