3 1/2 stars; Rated R; 134 minutes
Among Spike Lee’s prodigious filmmaking talents, opening sequences are perhaps his most distinctive. He creates ambitious, operatic overtures for his films, mini-movies that introduce viewers to the stories and themes they’re about to encounter, as well as plunge them into the precise kind of dream-state necessary to best appreciate what’s to come.
The introductory sequence to “BlacKkKlansman” is just as audacious, breathtaking and useful as Lee’s fans have come to expect. The film’s first image is the magnificent crane shot from “Gone With the Wind,” wherein Scarlett O’Hara desperately makes her way through hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers, and the camera pulls up and back to reveal the massive extent of the carnage visited upon white Southerners during the Civil War.
It’s a bravura moment, one of the most iconic in the cinematic canon, and Lee proceeds to give it a swift revisionist kick, using it to launch a lacerating tutorial in the history of American racism, white identity politics, paranoia and terrorism that begins as a study in artifacts from the past — including a slicked-back, bespectacled Alec Baldwin delivering a speech about miscegenation and the dangers of a mongrel nation — but that ends sounding utterly of-the-moment.
Director Spike Lee, second from right, poses with his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, right, his son, Jackson Lee. left, and daughter, Satchel Lee, as they leave the Festival Palace on May 14 after the screening of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at the Cannes Film Festival. (Antonin Thuillier/AFP/Getty Images)
The core narrative of “BlacKkKlansman” is about Ron Stallworth, who in the early 1970s became the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police department, and through a series of bizarre accidents and mistaken identities managed to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We meet Stallworth (John David Washington) as he’s being interviewed to be the “Jackie Robinson” of the local force.
Lee styles and frames Washington like a Blaxploitation hero, his Afro perfectly picked out, his sense of cool unruffled and impenetrable within the soft visual haze of the era. Accompanied by an expressively lush jazz-blues score by Lee’s regular composer Terence Blanchard, “BlacKkKlansman” announces from the jump that viewers are in for a lush, sensory treat as Lee plays with the film vernacular he’s manipulated so adroitly and expressively for three decades.
Narratively, the film is more uneven. While going undercover to a Stokely Carmichael rally — where he finds himself getting caught up in the Black Panther leader’s revolutionary call to arms — Stallworth meets an attractive college student (Laura Harrier), with whom he will debate the relative efficacy of radical and reformist politics. Later, when he sees a recruitment ad for the local KKK, he impulsively calls, forgetting to use an assumed name.
With that, an alternately tense and amusing game of cat-and-mouse ensues, with Stallworth engaging the Klan leader in revealing and perhaps incriminating phone conversations, and sending his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) out to play him in real life, despite their sounding nothing like one another.
Lee structures “BlacKkKlansman” like a crackerjack procedural, punctuated by jaunty humor and “Mod Squad” team dynamics. The tonal balance is tricky, and it isn’t helped by the filmmaker’s penchant for making his most trenchant arguments with blunt, billboard-like speeches and on-the-nose comparisons to the toxic environment of today.
Denver police protect a flag-waving member of the Ku Klux Klan at 16th street and Court place during a Chicano march through downtown Denver, kicking off festivities for Mexican Independence Day. One of the marchers is confronted by a policeman, left, as he attempts to approach the Klansman. Shortly after, unidentified Klansman rolled up his sign and flag and left. (Photo By Duane Howell, The Denver Post)
One of “BlacKkKlansman’s” most moving moments is a tableau of black faces as they listen to Carmichael — by then going by the norm de guerre Kwame Ture — deplore unarmed civilians being “shot down in the street by white racist cops.”
Other past-present echoes aren’t nearly as graceful. When Stallworth strikes up a phone friendship with David Duke (a blandly menacing Topher Grace), the dialogue is so forced that the only thing missing is a MAGA hat. As the plot that Stallworth and Zimmerman discover thickens, its mechanics become unwieldy and progressively less credible, culminating in a scene that should be a nail-biter but feels machined by a piece of script-writing software.
Even at its clunkiest, though, “BlacKkKlansman” is wildly entertaining and wisely prescient, connecting the dots between Duke’s goal of taking racism mainstream with the modern rhetoric around affirmative action and immigration, and dramatizing a combination of guns, alcohol, sexual insecurity and racial impunity that would be ridiculous if it weren’t so deadly. (What makes the Colorado Springs Klan so dangerous is its proximity to, and shared membership with, Fort Carson and NORAD headquarters just down the road).
As he does in the beginning, Lee wraps up the film with a masterful, deeply affecting set piece, in which Harry Belafonte makes a powerful cameo as a civil rights veteran, his reminiscences juxtaposed with a Klan screening of “The Birth of a Nation” and shots from the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville almost exactly one year ago. That footage includes shocking images of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer being mowed down and killed.
It’s a grievous, galvanizing and gracefully executed coda that could only be conceived by one of our most forceful polemicists and poets. “BlacKkKlansman” winds up being Lee’s best and most necessary movie in years, confronting his audience with facts no less urgent for being painful to see clearly, much less accept: This is our cinema. This is our history. This burning cross is ours to bear. This is America.