In person meetings are another matter. Enter Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish detective who will impersonate Stallworth in person while Stallworth keeps up the ruse over the phone. Stallworth, emboldened by initial success, tries to go big and hook KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace), easily reachable and well-known thanks to numerous public appearances in otherwise respectable venues. Duke is no smarter than the rubes of Colorado Springs, and he’s soon vouching for Stallworth with the local klavern, praise that gets Zimmerman’s version of Ron privy to some big plans the group is working on.
Based on Stallworth’s memoirs declaring himself the first black member of the KKK, BlacKkKlansman is torn between how to depict the klan members. Lee understands that racism is fundamentally a fool’s game littered with bad arguments that start at the end (whites are awesome) and works backwards to find proof. In the second season of Dear White People, this was demonstrated by a phrenology professor measuring skulls and falsifying results to land at the one he wanted, a supposed learned scientist spreading his hatred under the umbrella of white-coat authority. That’s chilling in its rank corruption, but the racists of Lee’s film are powerless clowns all the way to the top, no more able to influence anyone than they are to competently plan the bombing invented for the film: the real Stallworth investigated a plot by the KKK to infiltrate the military. There’s a distance between Lee trying to generate tension about the risk to Zimmerman and the uselessness of these men. The casting of rising comic genius Paul Walter Hauser as a particular version of a mouth-breathing klansman immediately undermines any danger.
If he’s unable to make the Colorado Springs chapter into credible threats, Lee very much wants to tie present racism to the faraway and recent past. He begins his film with Alec Baldwin costumed as an professor preaching academic racism, complete with bloopers and flubs. The casting of Baldwin immediately conjures his Trump impression, which is bookended at the end of the film by footage from Charlottesville. The drastic tonal whiplash between the beginning and end continues with a leaden scene of the klan members jubilantly watching Birth of a Nation while Harry Belafonte gives a seated lecture to a group of college students about the lynchings that resulted from the film. The students gasp, leading to the assumption that the audience should gasp as well, but any person with a passing familiarity with America’s racial history is familiar with this, and anyone who isn’t might not be watching Spike Lee films in the first place.
The impunity with which those lynchings took place was effectuated by the cops, and Lee is also struggling to be coherent in this arena. The film takes great pleasure in comeuppance against a nakedly racist and abusive officer, as do the lead characters and the other cops as well. That this takes place near the film’s implies a triumphant moment of change, but Lee surely recognizes the falsity of the bad apple metaphor, especially when he shows the leadership of the department, who are themselves celebrating the ejection of the racist cop, as racist themselves by focusing on black activism and ignoring hapless white terrorists. A case of mistaken identity late in the film provides Lee with a dark and resonant avenue to go down, but, like the superior Get Out, it wants to leave the audience with a false smile instead of a pit in their stomach, but then Lee includes the Charlottesville footage anyway, so who the hell knows.
All that said, the experience of BlacKkKlansman is largely entertaining. Washington, like almost every human ever, lacks his father’s charisma, but he looks the part despite not measuring up to Lee’s most memorable protagonists. He projects confidence even as his delivery comes off wooden. Driver is intriguing in his role, a Jewish man who only starts to feel something about his heritage when around people who hate him for it. This raises the question of cultural pride only being a thing in relief to what it’s in opposition to, like a team must be rooted for because of its enemies and not its assets. Laura Harrier plays Patrice Dumas, a student activist who Stallworth meets on an undercover assignment and strikes up a relationship with. The film is best in scenes between these two, whether in the crush of a club or in a quiet walk along a river. In the latter, Lee reveals his sentiments towards Patrice when he positions the lighting to turn her afro into a halo.
BlacKkKlansman is more uneven than most Lee films, and the director doesn’t have a reputation of tonal consistency. What he’s great at is sometimes on display, but his worst traits, up to and including attempting to pack everything possible into an unwieldy package, are present as well. If he wins his first Oscar for this, I know I’ll be thinking of Denzel and Malcolm X, a performance that did not win and was instead defeated by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman in what was perceived as a lifetime achievement award. Good on Lee for getting the statue, but if he had justly won for Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X, I wonder if BlacKkKlansman would be in the conversation at all. C+