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'BlacKkKlansman' review: Spike Lee returns to form with a terrifically entertaining true-life story

Adam Driver and John David Washington star in

Adam Driver and John David Washington star in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." Credit: Focus Features / David Lee

PLOT In the 1970s, a black police officer goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.

CAST John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace

RATED R (language, violence)


BOTTOM LINE Spike Lee returns to form with a true-life story that works as comedy, crime drama and political alarm-bell all at once.

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who becomes the first black police officer on the Colorado Springs force in the mid-1970s. As if that wasn’t bold enough, Stallworth, as an undercover cop, phones up the local Ku Klux Klan and poses as a white racist. A friendly, slur-filled conversation ensues. Stallworth is invited to a meeting.

“Well,” says a nonplused co-worker (Ken Garito), “you probably shouldn’t go to that meeting.” But Stallworth finds a way. Stallworth keeps manning the phone, but Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a white detective, will pose as Stallworth in the flesh. Together, they realize the Klan has a twofold mission: plain old local violence, and a brave new vision of making racial hatred politically palatable to mainstream America.

Part crime drama, part social satire, “BlacKkKlansman” sometimes feels like a Venn diagram of “The Departed” and “Blazing Saddles” — only its story is true. Produced by Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and featuring note-perfect performances from Driver and Washington (son of Denzel), “BlacKkKlansman” is a terrifically entertaining movie that marks a return to form for Lee: energetic, angry, insightful, confrontational.

Lee clearly relishes throwing this giant cream pie in the face of the Klan. They’re depicted as hapless (but dangerous) good ol’ boys, led by local president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Over at corporate, so to speak, sits David Duke (Topher Grace), a clean-scrubbed twerp in a suit. Duke speaks in political slogans that are meant to ring a bell: He wants to put “America first” so the country can “achieve its greatness again.” (Charlie Wachtel wrote the screenplay with Lee and others.) Meanwhile, the two detectives lead more than double lives: Stallworth is dating a black activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who hates cops; Zimmerman, now socializing with Holocaust deniers, finds himself newly aware of the Jewish identity he’d conveniently tucked away.

In the movie’s closing moments, Lee draws a solid line — in case you missed the dotted ones — between the Klan, its racist ideology and Donald Trump. Footage of Duke praising Trump’s ideology is followed by the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead. That, in turn, leads to Trump’s now-infamous defense of the marchers as “very fine people.” (“BlacKkKlansman” is being released two days before the one-year anniversary of Heyer’s death.)

This isn’t just a partisan takedown (though it may be that, too). It’s Lee’s attempt to show that racism isn’t mere bias, it’s violence waiting to happen. That, as the movie might say, is fo’ real.

Spike’s greatest

Spike Lee has made roughly two dozen movies over more than 30 years. When he misses, he often does so by a mile, but when he hits, he’s as powerful as a megaton bomb. Here are four of his greatest films:

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) Thanks to its black-and-white photography and Lee’s role as a nebbishy ladies’ man, this witty comedy made Lee look like the next Woody Allen. Little did we know.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) The story of a pizza delivery guy (Lee) and his employer (Danny Aiello) who get caught up in a summertime riot driven by racial injustice, this remains Lee’s definitive movie. Still incendiary after nearly 30 years.

MALCOLM X (1992) Denzel Washington (father of “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington) plays the black leader in this densely packed biopic. Washington lost the best actor Oscar to Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”

25TH HOUR (2003) Edward Norton plays a drug dealer enjoying his last hours of freedom before prison. Set in a post-9/11 Manhattan, it’s still one of the best attempts to make sense of the attacks, and the new world they created.--RAFER GUZMAN

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