Spike Lee is basically the filmmaking equivalent of the Hulk.
He’s likable enough when he’s pleasant. When he gets angry, though, he’s downright incredible.
Take his latest, “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee draws moviegoers into the true story of how African-American detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan by leaning into its absurdities.
From its opening, featuring footage of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin) stumbling over venomous lines about an assault on his white heritage, to its portrayal of David Duke (Topher Grace) as an Aryan Ned Flanders type — complete with his “You’re darn tootin’ ” and “What can I do ya for?” — “BlacKkKlansman” has the feel of a Coen brothers film, down to the casting of an underused Steve Buscemi as one of Stallworth’s fellow detectives.
Once you’re lulled into complacency, however, Lee is waiting to smack you upside the head with some deadly serious parallels between its 1970s setting and today.
Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) rails against the system — “We are being shot down in the streets by white racist cops” — during a lecture that doubles as Stallworth’s first undercover assignment. Beauregard demonizes an entire community as “rapists” and “murderers.” Duke longs for “America to achieve its greatness again.”
At least Lee and his fellow screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott don’t have any of their characters declare that there were “very fine people on both sides” of an encounter with the Klan. Lee lets Donald Trump do that himself, during a coda that incorporates footage of the president’s remarks following last summer’s deadly confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia. (It’s no coincidence that “BlacKkKlansman” is opening on the weekend of the first anniversary of that particular low point.)
Based on Stallworth’s memoir, “BlacKkKlansman” follows the first black member of the Colorado Springs, Colorado, police force from his assignment in the records room, where he retrieves files for co-workers who refer to African-Americans as “toads,” through his quick promotion to the intelligence unit.
Browsing the local newspaper one day, Stallworth sees a recruitment ad for the local chapter of the KKK, calls the number and speaks with its leader, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). By reciting some of the abusive language and vile stereotypes he’d encountered throughout his life, Stallworth wrangles an invitation to a Klan meeting.
Stallworth recruits another detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who’s just coming to terms with his Jewish heritage, to share the persona he’s creating. Stallworth will continue his investigation of the Klan over the phone, while Zimmerman will be “Ron Stallworth” whenever face-to-face meetings are required.
The role of Stallworth is a star-making turn for Washington, who first worked with Lee when he was 6 alongside his father, Denzel, in “Malcolm X.”
“BlacKkKlansman” also is an incendiary return to form for Lee, who not only pulls no punches, he adds plenty of haymakers into the mix.
Duke, then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is portrayed as a buffoon in his telephone conversations with the real Stallworth. He can tell, for example, that Stallworth is a proud white man because of the way he pronounces the word “are.” If Stallworth were a black man, Duke proclaims, he’d pronounce it “are-uh.”
Duke’s rhetoric incites some to violence. Others cheer on a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” with him as though it were a rasslin’ match. Duke’s real danger lies in the way he buries overt racism under political issues so that the ideas can become entrenched. “Eventually, one day, you get someone in the White House who believes that.”
Lee’s contemporary attacks are anything but subtle.
They may even drive some moviegoers away.
Then again, those he’s most looking to offend weren’t exactly lining up to see a Spike Lee movie anyway.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.
Running time: 134 minutes
Rating: R; language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
Now playing: At multiple locations