By the time the 1970s rolled around, Colorado Springs was already well on its way to becoming a bustling little city. In the past decade, its population had nearly doubled. University students and Olympic athletes alike flocked to the city in droves, settling in among its awe-inspiring red rock spires. All seemed well until one quiet afternoon, David Duke, grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, paid a visit.
In Spike Lee’s new film “BlacKkKlansman,” that’s where Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes in. The first Black detective in the Colorado Springs police force, Stallworth quickly takes on the local chapter of the KKK as his mission, calling it to set up a meeting and planning on infiltrating the group. There’s just one problem — Stallworth is Black. That’s where Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) comes in. Jewish but WASP-passing, Zimmerman becomes the KKK’s in-person incarnation of Stallworth while the real Stallworth continues to man the phones.
As Zimmerman, posing as Stallworth, steadily rises the ranks of the KKK, the two men find it increasingly difficult to keep up the scheme for reasons both logistical and deeply personal. The film paints a beautiful vision of Black-Jewish solidarity as Zimmerman begins to find himself more and more in tune with his Jewish heritage. The real Stallworth, meanwhile, begins to grapple with the idea that joining the police, already a white supremacist organization, may not necessarily be the best way to take down the KKK, a more explicitly white supremacist group.
One of the film’s strongest points is that it never shies away from showing these difficult conversations about race onscreen — it is, after all, a Spike Lee joint. In fact, it makes engaging in these conversations seem far from daunting. They become a part of the characters’ everyday, something to talk about at work or on a first date. If racism lurks silently but boldly just under the surface of everyday life in Colorado Springs, then critical discussions of race, in Spike Lee’s imagining, can lie just above the surface, waiting to combat whatever comes their way.
Framed by the crisp beauty of the American West, the film is visually stunning too. From the obvious beauty of the Garden of the Gods to the vintage police offices that, in just the right lighting, move from stuffy to charming and cozy, every setting in the movie is exceptionally inviting. The film’s fashion, too, elevates it from simply a riveting tale of caution to a marvel to watch. The heroes’ wardrobes meld autumnal reds and oranges, warm blacks and glimmering golds with furs and flannels to boot, proving once and for all that style and substance are inseparable.
It’s worth noting that “BlacKkKlansman” is very emphatically not just about Colorado Springs, nor is it just about the 1970s. As David Duke (Topher Grace) discourses with Stallworth over the phone, his dialogue seems abundantly familiar — this is the prevailing political discourse of today’s world. The film takes it upon itself to remind us that David Duke lives on both as a man and as an ideological leader. It walks the fine line between breaking down the barriers between past and present with flair and risking comparisons that are a little bit too on the nose. While there are some minor occasional missteps, they’re more likely to elicit a laugh during one of the film’s lighter moments than they are to botch any of the work Spike Lee has done to set up the film.
In “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee provides some much-needed context for the Donald Trump era and lays bare the historical precedent for today’s political climate. The “crazy, outrageous, incredible” true story jars its viewers with the reality of the nefarious subtlety of racism in contemporary America and empowers real-life resistance to white supremacy, no matter what the costs may be.
“BlacKkKlansman” is now playing at Landmark California Theatres.