Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
You'll see the word "angry" in a lot of descriptions of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman. And it's certainly understandable, as the film ends with footage of the Charlottesville KKK march and the vehicular weapon that killed a woman, from only a year ago. There were bits of that footage that I had never seen and Lee secured with the blessing of the family of the fallen social justice warrior (it's high time that term was reclaimed for positive because it is a positive descriptor). You do leave angry because the "kind" KKK is on the rise again, emboldened by Trump, and led by the same man, David Duke, who features prominently in the film, like a cicada that's crawled out of its burrowed dirt hole every 17 years and finally gets to sing loud and white proud. You leave with anger from the now with the perfect Lee segue from then to now, the double dolly shot, our heroes’ guns drawn, encountering an unknown future. But the actual film itself is a unique balancing act of bumbling farce, thriller, and an elevating portrait of beauty.
Lee shows no hint of disbelief in the racial component of a black cop in 1978, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who is invited to join a Colorado chapter of the KKK over the phone, and infiltrates it by talking on the phone to David Duke (Topher Grace) and sending his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) as his physical stand in to the Klan meetings. Lee shows some disbelief at how easily Duke was duped, but like most black people who were not shocked in the slightest when Trump was elected, there is nary a shock in what is said and done in BlacKkKlansman. The racial diatribes, the ammo targets of black kids in a playground, the military membership in a hate group, that's the fo' real shit, the connective tissue from Birth of a Nation to 1978 to 2017 Charlottesville.
Lee is careful to show "both sides" of the KKK and the police force as having intelligent members, buffoons, and hot heads. There's the racist cop, who's really every -ist, who's drunk on authority (Ken Garito). There's the friendly white surveillance officer (Michael Buscemi), who understands more about black culture than you'd think, who sits on the sidelines, but is quick to have Ron's back on all internal matters. There's the articulate KKK leader (Ryan Eggold) who hates infighting, poor dress, and poor speech, anything that reinforces the backwoods idiots narrative of their membership. There's the two sides of a coin idiot KKK members, with one ticking time bomb who can't read (Jasper Paakkonen) and one good ole boy who's always drunk but always ready to blow something up (I, Tonya's true MVP, Paul Walter Hauser). And then there's the born Jewish cop, Flip Zimmerman, who goes in as Ron Stallworth to the meetings. Lee doesn't want this film to be to on-the-nose angry because he wants the white audience to not just see the systemic horror of the black experience but also to place themselves within it as well. There are many discussions of Driver's Jewish heritage, that he was born Jewish and never practiced, but now he has to answer to it within the Klan because one member suspects him of being Jewish. The obvious parallel is that black people are born with a skin color that makes many judge them in various ways upon first seeing, and that it carries a history long before them of oppression and enforced laws of being lesser. And for a non-practicing Jew to have to feel judged by his facial features, his penis, and the religion's history of not just being mass murdered in the Holocaust but also the hate group's scapegoat for Jesus Christ, it gives Driver a small drop of what that experience is like, even though in most circumstances he can walk through the town with societal privilege and lack of preconceived notions, when he is in a hate group, under cover, he always has to attempt to pass, to show that someone's conception is wrong.
I mentioned "beauty" in the opening. More than anger, I truly believe that BlacKkKlansman is most interested in lifting up. The section of the film that I love the most involves a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) at a college event put on by the black student body. Ture, more popularly known as Stokley Carmichael, talks with passion about the natural beauty of blackness, in hair, facial construction, in body, in being. Lee reflects portraits of audience member faces, with great detail, fading in and out, black on black, beauty on beauty. Moments after this proud awareness, Ture and his college chaperone (Laura Harrier) are pulled over for their blackness, she is groped, her beautiful afro is a sign of aggression. Lee could've leaned hard into the awfulness of that moment but instead he follows it with a dance party at a bar, beautiful bodies in motion. Instead of dwelling on the subjection, Lee wants to further the elevation. You have been victimized but you are beautiful. This one of the best sections of his entire filmmaking career. And later in the film, Lee also has a great dichotomy cut between of a White Power rally and a Black Power rally, with one side laughing at caricatures from the past and the other, recounting a horrific and disgusting failure of justice, and revelry in torture. One rally is led by Topher Grace, the other by Harry Belafonte, so yeah, you know which one is profound and which one is a smug.
Like most Lee movies, there's so much in this movie that there's a few choices that are perhaps too much. For me, it's the Alec Baldwin intro of shooting a hate propaganda video, hearing his horrible rhetoric and also seeing him mess up his delivery a la a blooper reel of a hate movie. Because we hear so many disgusting remarks and see the KKK bumble around as idiots it doesn't seem necessary to have this as a cold open because it's throughout the movie. And there's one section that feels more like Tarantino than Lee, dropping movie poster overlays in a discussion of blaxploitation on a date. But those are the only moments that felt flat to me and I won't fault Lee for not going lean in BlacKkKlansman because its his bloated style that allows him the space to make sequences like described above, that are alive and full of message, that don't necessarily push the plot forward, but instead live in a moment. This is Lee's best work in years, and I appreciate the moments of beauty and elation because we don't just move forward by feeling beaten but by feeling embraced and loved. And though this movie ends on a note of separation, Lee routinely holds his audience close and says, unequivocally, "black is beautiful."
EDIT: on second viewing, on the shoulders of that resplendent Ture speech-dance party and the white power/black power cutting, this movie really is indebted to the Charlottesville ending; it has the perfect segue from the hallway, guns drawn, but the anger and sadness that ensues (“this is my town, we didn’t want those morherfuckers here”) eases the audience out with an immense hole in their heart about the present, but also covers some potholes in the movie, making it feel a little better than it truly is; but it is truly necessary for this moment, irregardless.