I admire Spike Lee, as a filmmaker, more than maybe any other director working today. That isn’t to say that I always like his movies, but I appreciate the risks he takes, both artistically and thematically.
He’s always trying something, looking for a new way to tell a story, looking for important stories to tell, and testing the boundaries of standard filmmaking “rules.” As with any risk, there are times this simply doesn’t work out. But when everything clicks, Spike Lee is as good as there is.
His newest, BlacKkKlansman, is his best in more than a decade and, interestingly, also probably his most conventional. It tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective in Colorado Springs who, incredibly, infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Stallworth conducted much of his business over the phone, for obvious reasons, even having multiple conversations with David Duke, who at the time was the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Stallworth worked with a white colleague who took his place when in-person meetings with the Klan were necessary.
Much of the movie is a pretty straight-ahead cop thriller-slash-comedy, but it’s steeped in racial and social issues that Lee makes very clear are more than relevant today. Lee draws parallels to contemporary events and the explicit and implicit racism currently thrashing about in our society so effectively, that if you told me most of the dialogue actually came from conversations that took place entirely over the past two or three years, I would absolutely believe it.
BlacKkKlansman is the kind of movie that could win Lee an Oscar, especially considering he probably should have been recognized at least twice before. He knows perfectly well how to build tension, how to charm us, and how to outrage us, and there’s at least one sequence that’s among the best of his career. But: before you cheer too hard at what seems to be a crowd-pleasing ending, keep in mind that Spike Lee definitely knows how to land a punch.