Based on retired police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman, director Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman stars John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington) as the first Black cop on the Colorado Springs police department in the early 1970s.
Stuck in a thankless position in the evidence room and surrounded by fellow officers who do little to hide their racism, Stallworth longs for something with a bit more action. He’s given an undercover assignment to infiltrate a rally hosted by the local Black student union, featuring guest speaker Kwame Ture/Stokley Carmichael (portrayed by Corey Hawkins, in a cameo that feels like it came out of Lee’s Malcolm X).
While at the rally, Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a fiery, fist-in-the-air soul sister committed to the revolution. But more important than any potential romance is that Stallworth develops a taste for undercover work—which leads the African American cop to, of all things, infiltrate the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.
Answering a recruitment ad in the local newspaper—and a knack for talking on the phone using his best “white guy” voice—Stallworth gets in good with the local Klan in Colorado Springs. But his attempt to infiltrate the organization hits an obvious stumbling block when it comes time to meet in person.
Enter fellow police officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a nonpracticing Jew who agrees to pretend to be Stallworth in person. With Stallworth as the voice and Zimmerman the body, the duo becomes increasingly involved with the KKK, including a budding phone relationship between Stallworth and David Duke (Topher Grace), the Klan’s Grand Wizard.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Lee’s latest joint—a fact that positions BlacKkKlansman almost perfectly within the filmmaker’s larger oeuvre. Few directors with as many films to their name as Lee have such an incredible body of work that is both brilliant and eye-rollingly annoying, often in the same movie.
And while BlacKkKlansman never hits the rocky depths of Lee’s more troubled or narratively uneven films, it also falls short of the inspired artistry that defines the director’s best work.
Some of the problems with BlacKkKlansman are evident in the marketing campaign, which sells the film more as a comedy than a drama. It’d almost be possible to say the film’s advertising misrepresents it, except for the fact that as much as the trailer doesn’t seem to know what BlacKkKlansman is, neither does the movie itself.
In true Spike Lee fashion, the film mixes drama, comedy, and heavy-handed politics that don’t always seamlessly blend; as with many of his other films, BlacKkKlansman constantly feels like Lee’s not sure what tone he wants to hit, so he hits them all, often with the subtlety of a brick to the face. The Coen brothers bend and warp genres with ease and grace; when Lee attempts to do the same, it’s with grunting effort.
At times, BlacKkKlansman almost feels like Lee’s response to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s—or perhaps it’s more of a response to the works of Quentin Tarantino, who’s made a career out of cannibalizing the Black action films of the past. But if Lee is trying to take back some of the aesthetics and tropes that Tarantino has staked a claim to, it also feels like he doesn’t quite know what to do with them.
This shortcoming is never more apparent than in the character of Stallworth: Is he someone we’re supposed to take seriously, or is he a joke? Is there more to him than an Afro picked to spherical perfection? (Because honestly, it often feels like Stallworth’s hair has more dimension than his character.) By comparison, Zimmerman is more interesting and complex as he grapples with his forsaken Jewish heritage. Adam Driver is to BlacKkKlansman what Samuel L. Jackson was to Lee’s Jungle Fever—a supporting character far more compelling than the lead.
None of this is to say that BlacKkKlansman is a bad film. It’s a solid work, albeit one that’s flawed in the same ways that nearly all of Spike’s best films are flawed. Still, after more than 30 years of behind the camera, you’d think Lee would know how to get out of his own way once in a while.
Complicating things is the fact that BlacKkKlansman is arriving on the heels of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, both of which are better films that tackle similarly heady subject matter far more deftly.
In the case of Sorry to Bother You, it’s nothing more than a case of unfortunate timing that it beat BlacKkKlansman to the theater. But one still can’t help but notice that the punch of Riley’s film has diminished some of the impact of Lee’s—in the process making a seasoned director seem like an old filmmaker struggling for relevance.