Director Spike Lee draws parallels between racial tensions of the 1970s and today
If Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” is a period piece, it's one that makes an unsubtle point about how much it still applies today.
It's set in the 1970s and feels like a throwback to the blaxploitation cinema of the time.
It's almost uncomfortably entertaining given the subject matter, but Lee knows how much sugar to add to make his medicine go down.
It also touts that it's from the producers of “Get Out,” and that lineage reveals itself in a movie that is a crowd-pleaser with layers of analogy and social commentary.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on a true story that seems too wild to be true. Although it takes artistic license in fictionalizing tangential details, even the premise seems like the work of a screenwriter.
The setting is early 1970s Colorado Springs. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective in the police department.
His work begins with the rookie-level task of managing the evidence library, but his initiative soon has him shift to the role of detective. An innocuous classified ad for the Ku Klux Klan leads to the case of a lifetime.
Stallworth calls the number in the ad, pretending (with great effectiveness) to be a likeminded white man eager to support the Klan.
Over the phone, Stallworth earns the trust of the local Klan leader, who soon wants an in-person meeting, which is a problem.
So Stallworth's fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), takes on the role of the in-person persona, even as Stallworth continues to work the phone (including calls to David Duke, played by Topher Grace).
Zimmerman's own Jewish background doesn't hold a lot of weight for him, but it's certainly a complication when you're interacting with the Klan.
Lee makes this film both an homage to the era and a prescient commentary on how far we haven't come on issues of race in America.
Even more complex layers are added in the creation of a fictionalized love interest: A black student activist that Stallworth meets when he's undercover at a speaking engagement for Civil Rights activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael).
The relationship creates a voice for the complex struggle of depicting a black cop in the modern context. (Boots Riley, director of this summer's breakout “Sorry to Bother You,” recently criticized this film for its depiction of “good” cops.)
But while Lee keeps things entertaining, often even funny, the director of “Do the Right Thing” knows answers aren't simple.
The film's barrage of casual racial slurs can shock, but they serve as a reminder of some very real problems with white America.
And Lee ends on a note that makes his message hit like a brick: a montage of footage from Charlottesville. His message is that this isn't an America gone by. This is still America.