Spike Lee made waves portraying bigotry and violence in 1989's "Do the Right Thing." He's made scads of films since, "Inside Man," "Malcolm X," "When the Levees Broke." The latest is an unmistakably potent addition to Lee's oeuvre.
"BlacKkKlansman" is the true story Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado Springs. Using his "white" voice and his real name, Ron (John David Washington) answers a newspaper ad calling for recruits. He soon charms leadership into a face-to-face; that's where Flip (Adam Driver), Ron's white, Jewish partner, comes in. The Rons are so good at "passing" that they make contact with the then-grand wizard of KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace).
This film's based on Stallworth's memoir, and while it's rooted in the '70s, the rhetoric and struggles parallel contemporary America.
"We are being shot down in the streets by white, racists cops," said Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) at a Black Student Union event. Later, during a white supremacist hang, there are many calls "for America to achieve its greatness again."
"BlacKkKlansman" juxtaposes two movements with vigor, and Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin bring the tension in creative ways through tight cuts to eyes and hands loading guns. In another scene, KKK members chant, and the camera captures different responses of white and black waitstaff. In a signature directorial move, Lee scans his lens in a tight shot of their expressions, some excited, others exhausted. It's eerie and unsettling.
There's a deep look at the power of portrayal and perception. The film opens with footage from "Gone with the Wind" and D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation." Cue footage of blackface. Later, writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee note the KKK saw a resurgence after the Griffith's 1915 film was released.
There are laugh-out-loud moments, too, no doubt thanks to producer Jordan Peele, and the softness is as good as the suspense, especially in a sequence on black beauty.
Washington (son of Denzel) plays Ron with care, tapping into the bubbling emotions of a double life realistically, with a teetering stoicism. Driver is spot on as Flip, an accessible, down-to-Earth cop trying, and failing, to hang onto apathy in the line of duty.
Laura Harrier plays BSU president Patrice as refreshingly uncompromising in her positions. When she and Ron discuss blaxploitation film figures, Lee inserts movie posters of Coffy, Superfly, Shaft. Patrice says their images were damaging to the people, and you sense this character's contribution is a positive one.
Grace's performance is a stand-out. He's well-spoken, racist lite to Jasper Pääkk'nen's wired Felix. But when Duke meets a black person, Grace communicates a locked-down disdain dripping with etiquette, revulsion ready to pounce. It's something to see. That goes for the whole movie, though.
Heads up: It's a hard R rating with a detailed description of torture and plenty of racial epithets, mostly coming from Ron. Lee tops it with last year's footage from Charlottesville, Va., where a car drove into a rally of people, killing Heather Heyer. ("Rest in Power" flashes on the screen near her name.)
There will be laughs, goosebumps, and you might leave the theater with weak knees. It's all worth it.
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Rating: R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
Opening Friday: Zinema 2