By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Spike Lee is at his best when he’ s mad as hell.
But he’s even better when he combines his rage with his caustic sense of humor, as he does in his brilliant new movie, “BlacKkKlansman.”
Lee can be so angry, so passionate, so…well… occasionally preachy that we forget he’s also very funny. His new movie, a prizewinner at Cannes last spring, is based on the sort of true story you couldn’t make up. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a Colorado cop named Ron Stallworth who decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
One small, um, problem: Stallworth was African-American. As his chief says, he’s the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force.
Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) first gets a taste for going undercover when he’s assigned to a Stokely Carmichael speech at the nearby university. Soon after, he reads a newspaper ad soliciting new members for the local chapter of the KKK. So he calls them up and, after spewing the right racist invective, gets invited over for a meeting.
Which brings us back to that small, um, problem. Ron can fool the KKK on the phone; he is, as he says “fluent in jive and the King’s English.”
But face to face…
So one of his colleagues, a Jewish guy named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver of “Star Wars” fame) agrees to go in his place. But you’re Jewish, Ron points out, to which Flip replies, “I don’t know. Am I?”
Things get crazier – and more dangerous – from there. Dodging questions about his own ethnicity, Zimmerman proudly claims that he’s no Holocaust denier. Rather, he celebrates it. “I say the Holocaust is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he says, with a beatific smile.
Before long, he’s asked to sign up – though, he’s disappointed to learn, the robe and hood aren’t included in the initial membership fee.
The loopy CloudCuckooLand logic of the Klan is amusing, but it’s also chilling. These clowns plant bombs. They refer to cross burnings as their “bread and butter.” The targets on their shooting range sport Afros.
And they worship David Dukes (Topher Grace) who wears three-piece suits and has ditched the Grand Wizard title in favor of the more corporate-sounding National Director.
After all, as a Klan underling notes, nobody wants to be called a bigot anymore. “Archie Bunker made it uncool.”
The material is so rich, so inviting, that Lee must have been sorely tempted to go overboard (Yes, he has that streak). Instead, he keeps a cool head and a canny balance between how insane this stuff is and how sad.
Further, Lee is inclusive. He reminds us that the KKK isn’t very nice to Jews either. And Stallworth’s girlfriend (Laura Harrier) is for women’s rights as well as civil rights. Asked which she prefers, “Shaft” or “Superfly,” she snaps, “A pimp ain’t no hero.”
Lee still wears his heart — and his rage — on his sleeve, but he does so with authority and, as I’ve said, humor. “The BlacKkKlansman” is as entertaining as it is provocative. It’s not a polemic. It’s a fully-realized film.
In the opening scenes, Lee reminds us that, after watching “The Birth of a Nation” (a checkered cinematic legend that, alas, celebrates the Klan), President Woodrow Wilson said, “It is like history written with lightning.”
Spike Lee offers us a powerful alternative, a dark mirror, if you will. He shows us history written with a burning cross.