There's a scene late in Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman, which opens Friday, when a young David Duke (played pitch-perfectly by Topher Grace) travels to Colorado Springs to welcome new recruits to the KKK. His bumpkin disciples are arrayed before him at a banquet – they are not yet in their white hoods – and Duke says that it's time for America "to show its ... greatness again."
It's only one of several explicit references to Donald Trump and the MAGA crowd. The film takes place in the 1970s and is based, as the opening title card declares, on "some fo' real, fo' real sh*t." (A black cop actually did infiltrate the Klan in Colorado and strike up an acquaintance with the Grand Wizard himself, and wrote the book on which the screenplay is based.) And yet the film's portrayal of racism is intended to show its durability. When our black protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is told by his police sergeant that one day, Americans might elect a person who embodies horrid racist ideals, Ron doesn't believe it. But the audience giggles and nods in recognition. (They sure will!) Likewise when the KKK turds begin chanting "America First! America First!" during the Duke festivities.
In fact, there's an awkward tension throughout the film – especially, I presume, for white audiences – where you're not sure if you're supposed to laugh or be sickened. (Maybe it's both?) But the film is very, very funny from the get-go. The opening scene, after a clip from Gone with the Wind, is a 1950s PSA, delivered by Alec Baldwin, about the dangers of integration. Baldwin is lit in a Wonka-esque progression of projector-room shades and shadows that amplifies the racist terror of his language. But he also keeps screwing up his lines and barking at his assistant. The juxtaposition is extreme – and hilarious -- and Baldwin, who's about as nonserious a presence as Will Ferrell, deflates what would otherwise be tremendous discomfort.
This happens many times. Once Stallworth is promoted to the Colorado Springs PD's intelligence unit, he cold calls the local KKK chapter and manages to gain membership by using a white body double – his cop colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). But the KKK dudes are all caricatures of hick racism. One is played by John Walter Hauser, the delusional criminal loser from I, Tonya, to give you an idea. They use the N-word liberally and are all fat and hyper-uneducated. They say "circumstanced" when they mean "circumcised." They certainly don't look anything like the enlightened liberal audiences who enjoy Brooklyn, New York-based auteur Spike Lee! The point is, these racists never seem all that threatening, and that makes laughing at them possible. These aren't the neo-Nazis of American History X, for example.
But the film becomes dead serious when Stallworth's story concludes. Lee has appended footage of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, including remarks by Trump and Duke and the brutal car attack that killed Heather Heyer. It casts the film in a darker and more uncompromising light. And it exposes the dangers of trying to battle racism by merely laughing at it.
Lee is a master stylist whose films – at least in my experience – are a lot easier to appreciate than they are to enjoy. Not so with BlackkKlansman. Its humor and structure (a traditional story arc!) should make it more appealing to mainstream audiences. Also, it's two hours and 15 minutes, not two hours and 32.
The performances, too, are some of the strongest of the year. Not only Washington and Driver, who are often spellbinding in their unique personal conflicts, but Topher Grace and Laura Harrier (Spiderman: Homecoming) in supporting roles. Harrier plays Patrice, the leader of the Colorado College black student union and Ron's girlfriend. She's a lot less concerned about the KKK than she is about the other racist outfit with which Ron is directly affiliated – the police. One of the more gripping sequences in the film is the KKK initiation ritual, intercut with remarks by Harry Belafonte, who describes an incident of horrendous brutality to the black student union. The police, Belafonte tells his rapt audience, did nothing to stop the lynching.