Spike Lee's talent never left. As is the case with great filmmakers, his perspective, his style and his vision have been present in all his work. As is also the case with great filmmakers, some of his work simply towers above the rest. 'Blackkklansman' is one of those towering achievements.
The film is difficult to classify because it transcends a single genre. At various times it's funny, dramatic, suspenseful, provocative. Often, it's many things at once. The one consistency of this heterogenous mixture, is excellence.
The story revolves around a college graduate, Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first black person to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Playing Ron is John David Washington, who, like his father, Denzel, carries himself and speaks with composure and power. He has a way of calmly making his presence felt without ever posing a threat, which is why the police chief believes he can command respect and handle the abuse he will surely take from the racist civilians (and fellow officers).
Ron quickly wins a chance to go undercover at a speaking event for a former black panther leader. His task to learn if the speaker is looking to incite violence (he's not). After a successful first mission, Ron is assigned to undercover work, and, one a whim, calls the number for the local KKK that he read in the paper. Buttering up the Klan-or as they call themselves, the organization-with fake white supremacist talk, he arranges a meeting. Since he's black, he teams up with a white officer, Flip (Adam Driver, who is spectacular in his role), to form the combined Ron Stallworth. It works like a charm because, as the real Ron says, "with the right white man, we can do anything."
Spike Lee is fair in his portrayal of everyone. Within some of the Klansman, there exists a puzzling contradiction-they're polite, courteous, and charismatic, but they're also despicable racists. Klan national director, David Duke, gracious to all the people all the white people he meets, but also says things like, "blacks are an in inferior race. It's a fact." Topher Grace plays Duke, a challenging role, with nuance and something that resembles likability (aside from the racism, obviously). Duke and a couple other Klansman are the kind of people that you could meet without knowing anything about them, and you might describe them as gentlemen. That is, until they slip a racist comment into conversation.
Other members of the Klan are slobbering, disgusting overt racists. Both types of people feel real, because they both are.
The police are portrayed fairly too. Some are evolved, others are trying but not quite there, and others are just as appalling as the slobbering, disgusting overt racist Klansman.
Spike Lee is at his best, as he typically is when working with material about race in America. Subtlety isn't always his strength or his intention, hence the mix of over-the-top and subtle racism. He opts to hammer home his message at the film's closing with some footage of last year's march in Charlottesville and the sound bites from a certain political figure that followed. Some viewers may argue that this footage wasn't needed. I think the film would work fine without it, but it certainly adds an extra punch.
The film's narrative is so utterly fascinating as a crime story that the elements of race could be removed and the movie would still work. But, it's the poignant social commentary that elevates the project to best picture contention.
There's so much going on that it's definitely a movie that needs to be watched twice. As great as it is the first time, I imagine that it's even better on the second viewing.
In any case, 'Blackkklansman' is one of the best movies of the year and one we will likely be thinking about for a long time.