Spike Lee is one of the few remaining living legends who still thinks of his own cinema in terms of great shots. I guarantee that, at 61 years of age, the Master still has camera setups and dolly and crane ideas he’s been waiting to spring his entire life but that he’ll never realize. He lives and breathes movies like no one else. Look at the recent output from others of his generation and you won’t find a single sequence as simple or as powerful as the early goings of BlacKkKlansman, where a meeting of the Colorado Springs Black Student Union transforms into a ritualistic, almost holy presentation of black faces, their features emerging from darkness as crisply and elegantly as if they were floating out of a Rembrandt painting.
That’s not to say that he’s alone, or that he’s even a unique figure among aging 80s-era filmmakers. Jarmusch and Lynch are still cranking out the best work of their careers well into the 21st century, while the older guard of Scorsese and even Agnès Varda are putting together films that could never have been made by their younger selves. But that’s not the same as what Spike is springing on us with his newest work. There won’t be another film like this for some time, despite it being a singularly revolutionary call to arms. This is a movie that needed to come out now, this year, this week, right now. It transcends politics, racial divides and even the moral and ethical grey areas of humanity itself. BlacKkKlansman is, as the quote within a cinematic quote from the film itself says, “written with lightning.” This is the real deal.
Every time I see a new Spike Lee Joint I wonder, “Is this the man’s best work?” There are so many variables and dimensions to every new project he takes on – from the political and cultural rage of Do The Right Thing to the depression of 25th Hour to the studio hit-making of Inside Man to the Kurosawa-esque formalism of Chi-Raq – that it’s no mistake that he’s become known as the American Godard. He is true to himself, always, and is always following his own muse to the point that he’s come full circle with BlacKkKlansman and is finally just levelling up and creating a piece of pure cinema as close to the New Hollywood and American New Wave auteurs he no doubt worshipped along with the rest of us as he ever has before. There are sequences here that feel as paranoid as The Parallax View and as cool as Saturday Night Fever all in the same shot. Who else out there is even attempting such a batshit combination? But besides all that, for all his swing-and-a-misses, he keeps releasing films that feel like new pinnacles. But for some reason or other, you always say, “well, it’s not as great as the early stuff” or, “I loved it but I can’t say it’s his best work.” But fuck all that. BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best movie. Accept that shit.
And let’s get one major issue out of the way right up front. Spike Lee just made a movie about a “good cop.” With everything else he’s trying to say with this piece, with all the heart-stopping horror of the film’s final documentary-tinged final moments (not to mention that image that ends the entire movie), he comes right out and dares you to sympathize with “one of us” who’s also “one of them.” Yes, the film itself deals with this head-on. And, yes, it’s clumsy. The entire thesis feels like a violation of itself, pitting pigs against fascists even as it draws a line in the sand and declares that BLACK LIVES MATTER and demands ALL POWER TO ALL THE PEOPLE. Spike believes in all of it. He believes that the Klan deserves to burn. He believes that black is beautiful. And he believes that Heather Heyer was a martyr.
To that end, you’re going to spend the majority of BlacKkKlansman – assuming you know as little about the subject matter going into the film as I did (and, apparently, as Lee himself did) – waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who’s double-crossing who? Which police captains or bartenders are going to turn out to be secret Klansmen? The payoff to that question is interesting in itself, given everything else we know about the story, the film, and about Spike Lee as a filmmaker. He’s not one to shy away from controversy, or, for that matter, to even recognize it as such when it might otherwise be read as common sense. That’s on you, as he once said.
This is a movie that soars and whips and speeds right along and dips and dives and digs in deep and jumps for joy and dances to some of the greatest soundtrack choices of the year all while revelling in the sheer fucking scariness of knowing you could be found out, gutted, lynched and knifed and ripped apart at any moment. This is a movie that knows that no one is coming to your rescue. It knows that all we have is ourselves to look out for ourselves, and ourselves to blame for our silence and laziness. It knows we have to do better, to get together and create something like a community, a society of people that wants something more functional and for the good of all and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there. And it’s a film that knows all too well that the other side knows this, too, and might be better at it than we are, more organized and energized and angrier and more willing to die for the cause. It’s terrifying, infuriating, funny as fuck, and probably the most purely entertaining film Spike’s put out in over a decade.
Oh, but I forgot to mention what it’s actually about. It’s a new Spike Lee movie about a black detective played by Denzel Washington’s son who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan with help from Adam Driver and Michael Buscemi and gets in so deep that David Fucking Duke – played by Topher Fucking Grace – wants to groom him for public office and somehow it all ends up leading exactly where it was always going to lead: to 2018. To now. And, like all great fiction, it’s based on a true story. Take advantage of the fact that you’re alive at the same time as Spike Lee, that we’re all lucky enough to be able to walk into a theater on opening day of BlacKkKlansman and buy a ticket. This is the true goddammer of the summer.