While prepping for an NPR roundtable discussion on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, I realized how out of touch I’d gotten with his work. The films I’ve seen are from the first half of the director’s career, and I’ve missed such provocative features as 25th Hour and Chi-Raq, as well as his highly praised documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke. Lately I haven’t felt the need to see his movies, on the assumption that he basically does the same thing over and over. But I should have kept up with Lee, who is a much more wide-ranging and versatile director than I’d given him credit for.
BlacKkKlansman illustrates the point. It’s based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who became the first black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs—“the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Department,” says his chief. Initially exiled to the records department, where he endures casual slights from racist cops as he retrieves files for them, Stallworth soon gets reassigned to undercover work. His first assignment is to infiltrate the local black-power movement, where he attends a speech by firebrand Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and falls for the attractive student leader who organized the event, Patrice (Laura Harrier).
Excited by undercover work, but feeling guilty for having betrayed his fellow African Americans, Stallworth undertakes to infiltrate the black-power group’s polar opposite: the Klan. Responding to an ad in the paper, he calls the local branch of the KKK and—imitating the voice of a white man—volunteers to join. When his offer is accepted, he faces an obvious problem: how can a black man show up as a recruit for the KKK? So Stallworth inveighs upon a white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate him.
Lee uses this improbable story to cue up an exploration of racial identity, black culture, and racism in the United States, past and present. His brazenly eclectic film is a cinematic grab bag that freely mixes diverse modes, references, and tones. It opens with the iconic scene from Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara walks among wounded and dying soldiers in a vast open-air hospital, beneath the tattered Confederate flag. This is followed by a weird pastiche of a ranting 1950s eugenicist, played in a deftly lunatic cameo by Alec Baldwin, spouting toxic race theory. Later we get some standard cop drama, but also a good deal of comedy. There are scenes that fondly echo blaxploitation films of the era. There’s a scene in a dance club that pays homage to Soul Train. And during Ture’s speech Lee has the camera pan slowly across the crowd of listeners, all sporting giant Afros, a tableau of beautiful black faces looming and merging almost surreally. This pictorial ode to the Afro serves as a hortatory resurrection of the “Black is Beautiful” credo; as Ture passionately expounds that credo, Lee illustrates it, with a misty montage of an ideal of black beauty.
Though there is a story to BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s mission is didactic rather than dramatic. Compare his film with Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave. Both directors engage the reality and the legacy of American slavery. But McQueen draws us deep into the horror of slavery so that we emerge from the film appalled and moved. Spike Lee is too protean and mischievous a director to do that. He’s more interested in raising issues and making points than in pushing viewers through the kind of vicarious emotional toils that make up Twelve Years a Slave. BlacKkKlansman is a film of ideas rather than emotions.