Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.
That’s the hook for the latest Spike Lee joint, a film incredibly of the moment in spite of its 1970s era setting.
With “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee is back on the scene with his most powerful and important film since “Malcolm X,” delivering two hours of gripping, masterful drama, humor and social commentary in a way only the two-time Academy Award nominee can.
Based on the memoirs of Ron Stallworth, the first African American police officer in the history of Colorado Springs, “BlacKkKlansman” takes the unbelievably true account of a 1978 criminal investigation into a local chapter of the KKK and lifts the tale into the cinematic stratosphere.
Amid the humorous absurdity of events, Lee strikes a searing, somber tone for the vast majority of “BlacKkKlansman.”
Bright and vivid cinematography stylized in a vintage mix of 1970s Blaxploitation films and Lee’s unique visual style, the film turns cold in a hurry as true evil reveals itself.
Perhaps the most chilling of all is how effortlessly Lee parallels 1970s racism with present day society and gives viewers the sense events in “BlacKkKlansman” could happen tomorrow.
As Stallworth, John David Washington delivers a star-making performance with an unique balance of charisma and sense of place. The young actor earns the trust of audiences early in the film, which allows the increasing absurdity to remain grounded.
How he approaches each scene as Stallworth varies slightly from scene partner to scene partner, providing depth of character as Stallworth has to identify with the black power movement at one moment and then adjust himself mentally when interacting with fellow officers and then yet again when on the phone with Klansmen.
Perhaps the best young character actor working today, Adam Driver works wonders as an undercover cop who has to pretend to be Ron Stallworth when meeting with Klansmen face to face.
His ability to internalize his own character’s thoughts and feelings while externalize the racist persona he and the real Stallworth create is nothing short of masterful.
Topher Grace — known for his lead role on television’s “That 70s Show” — delivers a career-best performance as David Duke, then Grand Wizard of the Klan.
The ease with which Grace replicates Duke’s ability to woo audiences with hate speech is subversively subtle and effective.
The chances of turning such an easy character to hate into caricature are immense, especially given the fantastical comedy involved in phone conversations between Stallworth and Duke.
Grace swings hard the other way, infusing Duke with a casual conversation tone that emphasizes just how matter-of-fact racism and bigotry can be.
Through Grace and the other actors portraying Klansmen, Lee is able to contemporize the plot and give context to modern political issues to strike up conversation.
There’s a great deal of interesting commentary on cinema on top of the social and political issues you’d typically expect from a Spike Lee joint.
Characters discuss Blaxploitation films like “Shaft” and “Superfly” in terms of how the depiction of African Americans in those films influences the greater social climate.
But it’s in Lee’s overt references to the controversial 1915 D.W. Griffith Klan propaganda film “Birth of a Nation” that “BlacKkKlansman” speaks most eloquently.
Griffith’s use of cross-cutting between two scenes occurring simultaneously in “Birth of a Nation” is replicated to great effect as a Klan initiation and subsequent screening of the film is counterbalanced with Harry Belafonte’s poignant recounting of a lynching in Waco.
It’s in these 10 minutes that Lee captures the dissonance in expected symmetry with cinematic impact you won’t find on screen anywhere else in 2018.
Cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who shot Beyonce’s “Lemonade” music video, grounds “BlacKkKlansman” in the heart of the 70s visually. Shooting on film, Irvin enriches the movie’s color palette scene by scene to aid Lee’s effort to contrast Stallworth and police from the Klan they were infiltrating.
“BlacKkKlansman” is the year’s first virtual lock for a Best Picture nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. Lee’s achievements on this film as both a visual and dramatic storyteller virtually assure his first Best Director nod as well.
The winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival may also garner acting noms for Washington and potentially both Driver and Grace in the supporting actor category.
A best adapted screenplay win is virtually assured among more technical categories and best editing may not be too far away from a certainty either.
Without doubt, “BlacKkKlansman” is the best film to arrive in theaters so far in 2018 and certainly the year’s most important.
Visually dynamic with vivid storytelling and award-worthy performances, this Spike Lee joint is an absolute must see film in theaters and one that will resonate long after the somber, powerful coda.