Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' a politically prescient call to cultural arms
"BlacKkKlansman" - ★ ★ ★ ★
That has been a recurring, resonate civil alert all through Spike Lee's movie career, never more so than in his polarizing, groundbreaking 1989 race drama "Do the Right Thing."
Lee's spot-on, politically prescient serio-comedy "BlacKkKlansman" shouts it again, "Wake up!" but with more urgency, more intensity, more scares and more laughs.
Laughs? In a fact-based story about black and Jewish Colorado Springs cops infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan to thwart domestic terrorism during the 1970s?
Parts of "BlacKkKlansman" come dangerously close to the cartoon antics of another well-known race comedy, Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles."
But Lee always pulls his movie back to sobering realism, capping this cautionary tale with a frightening montage of current events (narrated by Harry Belafonte) proving that when it comes to American racism, we haven't come such a long way, baby.
Ron Stallworth (a likable yet curiously edgeless John David Washington) and his explosive Afro join the Colorado Springs P.D. after he answers ridiculous, race-oriented questions from clueless white Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke).
Stallworth starts in the records department of the overtly racist cop station. He quickly becomes a detective and ready to target members of the KKK, who are attempting to streamline their messages of hatred and white superiority to appeal to more mainstream audiences.
The ambitious Stallworth assures the chief he's fluent in both "the King's English and jive." He strikes up a conversation with the local KKK (aka "The Organization" as they call it) on the telephone. He convinces them he's a white supremacist ready to join up.
When the KKK wants to meet him in person, Stallworth enlists detective Flip Zimmerman (the always watchable Adam Driver) to play the white Ron Stallworth.
Lee, working from a sharp and testy screenplay credited to both black and white writers, devotes a chunk of time to the comedy and suspense that arise from this nutty premise.
Occasionally, the two cops screw up their stories, and we hold our breath in fear that they may not pull off this ruse.
Not to worry. Lee depicts the KKKers as not the smartest whites in bedsheets, especially Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), an exuberant racist who demands Zimmerman take a lie-detector test.
Just when you think "BlacKkKlansman" can't stretch comic credibility further, the black Ron Stallworth winds up being assigned to protect visiting KKK Grand Wizard David Dukes (a sublimely subtle Topher Grace) who has already met the white Ron Stallworth in person.
"BlacKkKlansman" marks Lee's most accessible, impassioned and go-for-broke work since "Do the Right Thing."
Only its obligatory romantic subplot -- Stallworth falls for Laura Harrier's fiery black Student Union protest leader -- feels contrived and less passionate than the KKK.
Corey Hawkins delivers a barnstormer speech as Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael).
Ashlie Atkinson imbues Felix's servile wife Connie with anxious joy to do her part for the white cause, despite its chauvinist trappings.
Alec Baldwin -- usually lampooning President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" -- sets the film's comic scares in motion as a racist leader condemning the U.S. as a "mongrel nation."
A French critic at the Cannes Film Festival once charged that Lee's "Do the Right Thing" would cause race riots if ever released in the U.S.
Lee's incendiary "BlacKkKlansman" confirms that the riots have begun.
And it's time to wake up.
• • •
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin
Directed by: Spike Lee
Other: A Focus Features release. Rated R for language, sexual references, violence. 88 minutes