“BlacKkKlansman” tells a story almost too bizarre to believe: In the late 1970s, Ron Stallworth, an African-American police detective in Colorado Springs, brought down the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by infiltrating it from within. It sounds outrageous enough to be a Spike Lee joint, and now it is, a ferocious mix of prankishness and cold fury that is one of the director’s strongest yet most entertaining works in years.
Stallworth is played by a young actor named John David Washington, who doesn’t physically resemble his father, Denzel, but who carries a similar sense of command in his voice and bearing. Washington creates a character who’s committed but cagey, who lives for the moral satisfactions of police work while knowing he’s a barely tolerated token in an all-white workplace. The ironies of all that just tickle Stallworth — and make him stronger.
After his department chief (a ramrod Robert John Burke) tests the hero out by sending him undercover to a local appearance by Kwame Toure, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) – Lee lets the speech play out at powerful length, and you can see Stallworth absorb and file away its lessons — his eye is caught by a classified ad recruiting Klan members to a Colorado Springs chapter. On a whim, Stallworth calls and sweet-talks Walter (Ryan Eggold), the friendly white supremacist on the other end of the line, engaging him with an improvised patter of racial hate.
The expressions of the other detectives in the room as they overhear this cold call are priceless, and very much the approach of “BlacKkKlansman” in a nutshell. Can Stallworth even do this? Oh, yes, he can — and will.
Stallworth convinces his wary chief to use two Ron Stallworths, the real one on the phone working his way up the national Klan hierarchy all the way to a young David Duke (Topher Grace), and a white “Ron” to meet and befriend the locals. Enter Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who poses as a gun-loving good ol’ boy with an angry streak. In reality, Flip is Jewish, not that he’s ever thought much about it. After some time spent with these upstanding Americans, he’s thinking about it.
“BlacKkKlansman” has its rough patches, partly intentional since Lee likes his movies to have a hand-made, garrulous feel to them. (He makes polemics that simultaneously ramble and bite.) To appreciate this film, unfortunately, you have to get past the absurdly fraudulent Afro wig that Washington is forced to wear as Stallworth — it looks like a beret with a thyroid condition and it exerts a mesmerizing visual force field that at times actively detracts from the story Lee’s trying to tell.
That story proceeds along twin tracks of well-turned suspense and clear-eyed anger, the former deliciously comic at times, and the latter mounting in conviction. The Klan chapter infiltrated by Stallworth and his fellow undercover cops is made up of rubes, boobs, and vicious paranoids. Walter and the dressed-for-success Duke want to raise the group’s respectability quotient (one more way in which “BlacKkKlansman” resonates in an era of alt-right campaigns), but this movie’s Klan is better typified by a drunken moron named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser, who played Shawn Eckhardt in “I, Tonya”) and the psychopathic Felix, who Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen turns into a figure of hissing, mercurial hate.
Yet we also see Felix’s love for (and control over) his wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), whose ache to be part of the gang leads to a conspiracy that’s both ridiculous and deadly. Lee juggles a lot as “BlacKkKlansman” hurtles to its endgame, but if he drops one or two balls on the way — the love-interest/activist played with tart empathy by Laura Harrier never gets that much to do — that twin juggernaut of comic contempt and horror, of “can you believe these guys exist?” and “you’d better believe these guys exist,” rarely falters. Toward the end, the director even finds a cogent place (at last) for his beloved signature tracking shot, the heroes traveling stoically toward a burning cross as if toward a reckoning.
The movie’s emotional climax comes a little earlier and it takes the form of a history lesson, as perhaps it has to. Cribbing a page from the classic “Godfather” playbook, Lee intercuts the ceremony in which Flip’s “Ron” is initiated into the Klan with an aged Jerome Turner (played with fragile majesty by the 91-year-old Harry Belafonte) telling a group of students his memories of a 1914 lynching that turned into a white town’s holiday.
The details of Turner’s story sicken the senses and contrast powerfully with the bland pronouncements of pride and supremacy in the Klan’s manifesto. And because Lee sees even history through the movies, we gets clips from “The Birth of a Nation” to remind us that D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic was the first blockbuster ever — and a direct cause of the Klan’s rebirth in the 20th century.
Heavy handed? Sure, and also inarguable, and, anyway, Washington’s Ron Stallworth carries the main story line forward with a drawling, capable wit that keeps “BlacKkKlansman” balanced and on its toes. Besides, when Lee ends one of the most impassioned projects of his career with images from the 2017 Charlottesville alt-right rally — including the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer, whose mother gave the director permission to use the footage — it may occur to you that no hand may be heavy enough.
Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, based on the book by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Robert John Burke, Topher Grace. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and suburbs. 128 minutes. R (language throughout, including racial epithets, disturbing/violent material, some sexual references)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.