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Spike Lee connects past to urgent present in 'BlacKkKlansman'

Spike Lee films can be guilty of feeling didactic, but the material suits the message -- and the director's ...

Posted: Aug 10, 2018 5:57 AM
Updated: Aug 10, 2018 5:57 AM

Spike Lee films can be guilty of feeling didactic, but the material suits the message -- and the director's passion -- in "BlacKkKlansman," a fiery, wild true story infused by an overt cautionary warning that the past could be prologue. Tense, provocative and entertaining, it's not clear how well the movie will age, but Lee's latest joint feels tailor-made for the current moment.

As the title (a nightmare for copy editors) would suggest, "BlacKkKlansman" tells the remarkable story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's son), an African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, who got the rather audacious idea in the 1970s of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Ron, obviously, couldn't show up at the meetings, but he won the organizers' trust over the phone, sending his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the undercover version of himself.

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Ron gets the gig after initially being drafted to monitor a speech by civil-rights crusader Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who has taken the Kwame Ture. At the event Ron meets a college activist ("Spider-Man: Homecoming's" Laura Harrier) and has the not particularly advisable idea of trying to strike up a relationship with her.

So Ron is left guarding his secrets on multiple fronts, even if Flip is taking many of the risks, especially because the most sadistic member of the Klan, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), doesn't trust him.

Through his phone interactions, Ron even forms a sort-of relationship with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Klan's grand wizard, who has realized the organization needs a more pleasant outward face -- and to make political inroads -- to achieve its racist agenda.

Lee isn't subtle about connecting the dots between the unsettling resurgence of white supremacist movements today, President Trump's rhetoric and the Klan of four decades ago, even in the language that the group employs to win over converts. Speaking of language, that part of the movie is unflinching, as Klan members use insults and slurs -- about blacks, Jews, gays -- as what amounts to a means of macho posturing in order to establish their credentials.

The racism that Ron encounters also extends to the police, as he faces abuses within the department that he's singlehandedly integrating. While "BlacKkKlansman" works well enough as a tense, old-fashioned tale of undercover work -- in the mode of "Donnie Brasco" or "Prince of the City" -- its real power comes from drawing a through-line of America's racist history over the last century, from D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (The opening weekend coincides with the first anniversary of those disturbing events.)

Lee's fellow producers on the project include "Get Out" director Jordan Peele and horror maven Jason Blum, which feels appropriate, since the film taps into the same racial unease that made Peele's film a cultural talking point, albeit from a different angle and with '70s hairdos. Kudos, too, to Terence Blanchard's score, which plays a key role in augmenting the film's closing images.

"BlacKkKlansman" captures the absurd aspects of this story, while still drawing parallels that make the movie feel urgent and dishearteningly relevant. For that reason, it's among Lee's best films in some time -- one that will have people googling to learn more about its seemingly improbable facts, even as they contemplate its broader, sobering commentary.

"BlacKkKlansman" premieres Aug. 10 in the U.S. It's rated R.

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