There are Trump-era movies. The sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge, did-you-notice-that-Make-America-Great-Again-reference movie that tries too hard for its social commentary and relies too heavily on the crutch of cautionary tale. (Your “Fahrenheit 451”s and “Suburbicon”s.)
Then there are movies whose potency is amplified, but not necessitated by, their Trump-era creation and release. Movies that recognize “Trump-era” is a misnomer that falsely suggests an idyllic past when America wasn’t racist.
Spike Lee’s latest joint “BlackKklansman” is the latter, the kind of period piece whose immediacy is never forced. It’s the 1970s and our hero, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, “Ballers,” who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, Denzel), becomes the first Black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. A sign outside the station proclaims they are hiring diverse officers. After Stallworth quickly grows tired of working the records room, he proposes a promotion to undercover officer.
An ad for the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan in the paper sparks Ron’s interest and he sets out to become The Organization’s first black member. When he runs into the issue of face-to-face interactions, he employs the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” at the peak of his understated charm and dry wit).
Driver and Washington’s on-screen chemistry is unparalleled and the mechanics of their mission takes the notion of buddy-cop well beyond its usual genre bounds. Flip’s reckoning with his own privilege is especially well handled. As he encounters firsthand the depth and diversity of the Klan’s hatred, he sees himself, for the first time, as something other than white and lucky to have passed for so long.
Lee is in both foreign and familiar territory with this film. He has left Brooklyn for small town Colorado; a neighborhood community for a police station. But his formal fingerprints are all over every shot: brilliant cross-editing, a fantastic final dolly-zoom and a non-diegetic punctuating sequence that chillingly refocuses the film back to the present moment.
The writing is sharp and pointed without being on-the-nose, and Lee proves that he hasn’t lost his magical comedic timing. For a movie that shifts its tone every other scene, “BlackKklansman” earns each laugh and gasp equally.
Lee takes his source materials — Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of the same name, blaxploitation action films, buddy-cop comedies, America itself — and elevates them all, amplifying the strengths of each with perfectly executed action sequences and brilliant back-and-forth. He exposes how little about the world has changed with biting humor.
It’s a “dark comedy” in the same way “Get Out” was a “dark comedy” (Jordan Peele does, unsurprisingly, boast producing credits). Every laugh “BlackKklansman” elicits comes from the same dark and mysterious place fear is stored.
When the film premiere at Cannes last week, it was met with ten minutes of standing ovation. If you tell me in August the same happened in every theater it shows in, I won’t be surprised. This film deserves it. Every hand that touched “BlackKklansman” is performing at the top of their game, coming together to produce what very well should be Spike Lee’s most successful film in years.