Black to the Future

The Spike who sat by the door, 2018

There is a moment in “BlacKkKlansman,” the new Spike Lee joint (based on the stranger-than-fiction, black-sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing tale of undercover cop Ron Stallworth in the 1970s), which arrived a week ago in theaters, where the voice of David Duke (played with unctuous elegance by Topher Grace) is overheard on a wiretap speechifying in a samizdat manner which brings to mind today’s very public conversations — tailored to select ears — with regard to matters of race. It’s gripping, in that a parallel is drawn where the vitriol disclosed via those hacked sound waves would seem to anticipate the audible dog whistles that have proved integral to right-wing talk radio.

But the film ostensibly grounds us in the interstitial reality of the decade prior — an era marked by the Vietnam war and a policy of “benign neglect,” which was being enacted throughout the nation’s inner cities, though its establishing shot relays a battlefield scene — harking back to the days of the Confederacy — from “Gone with the Wind,” followed by more contemporary footage of Alec Baldwin, in a droll and economical appearance as a demagogue named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, flubbing his rehearsed lines in a taped tirade against “Martin Luther Coon.” From there the narrative develops as Ron (an evergreen John David Washington, who happens to be Denzel’s son) turns up for a job interview at a police department, in lily-white Colorado Springs, with his best employable-only-on-the-singular-basis-of-my-resume voice (if resumes had actually been a thing in the world at that time) in tow, and wills himself into an offer from his bemused interlocutors, one of whom is an expertly cast Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who, as the other black guy, delivers an icebreaker of a rebuttal (which garnered tension-sifting laughter in the screening I attended) to the question Ron puts to his soon-to-be boss, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), of whether there exists any among-the-force racism.

And a similar variety of humor revivifies the next several scenarios in this taut drama (written by Charlie Watchel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmot). A scene delineating Ron’s initial undercover assignment — infiltrating an event for the Colorado College Black Student Union — where he flirts with, then befriends the union’s president, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), then leaves the auditorium, radicalized, perhaps against his better judgement, after hearing a poignant speech by the erstwhile Black Panther Kwame Toure, formerly Stokely Carmichael (a radiant Corey Hawkins), in advance of an audience member’s inside joke of a response (“[expletive] the police!”) to the N.W.A. biopic — “Straight Outta Compton” — actor’s condemnation of corrupt officers is heard leads to one in which Ron’s reluctant partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), plays as a hilarious when-the-tables-are-turned impersonator of black slang, after it’s decided, naturally, that he’ll be the white (or is it Jewish?) face of the operation, which began when Ron, on a whim, made a call responding to an ad from a local chapter leader named Walter (Ryan Eggold) seeking new recruits to the Ku Klux Klan.

Deep cover: Adam Driver, left, and John David Washington take on The Man

Nevertheless, a dizzying sense of restlessness pervades and is magnified by Terence Blanchard’s pulsing score — at once soulful, methodical, restive, procedural, the last being a bizarre, if not spot-on adjective for describing a musical arrangement which accompanies precisely this genre of suspense-filled cop ensemble, whose plot unfolds — recalling such staples as “Serpico” and “Donnie Brasco” in particular — as a conflicted Flip advances toward the proverbial heart of darkness, securing his bona fides along the way (a standout is a scene in which a suspicions mid-level member named Felix, played to a villainous tee by Jasper Pääkkönen, attempts to force him to either admit his Jewish heritage, or take a lie-detector test, which the mic’d-up Flip avoids only after aggressively reciting a litany of racial slurs — perhaps to not only save his life, but to also erase any patina of “otherness” — while Ron, sight unseen, creates a diversion outside, after intercepting danger by way of his colleague’s verbal cues, by throwing a brick through a window before retreating back to safety) until his induction into the Klan by Mr. Duke, whose initial telephone introduction is portrayed, stylistically, via a vertiginous, Adam West-era “Batman”-villain slant, will threaten Ron’s loyalties to both his budding, if not slightly underdeveloped relationship with Patrice and to his assignment, which commences with violent implications, leading to a denouement that even manages to ingeniously resurrect Mr. Lee’s signature free-floating dolly zoom for good measure. (This notion of the “spook who sat by the door,” i.e. the world-weary insurectionist, ostensibly, a “credit” to the race — disseminated by Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel concerning a black C.I.A. agent gone rouge — who knows where the bodies are buried, both in the literal and figurative sense, is toyed with, then later dramatized in a couple moving vignettes. The first finds Ron and Patrice strolling on a bridge, interrogating the commodification of “blackness,” or its crossing over into the mainstream, while discussing “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and similar films of recent vintage, the posters of which appear temporarily onscreen and add a delightfully idiosyncratic touch, though a viewer’s assurance of a winking cameo, in this account which takes place in either the earlier or latter part of the decade, from Richard Pryor’s 1975 album, “Is It Something I Said?,” where the comedian is pictured hog-tied to a tree limb and surrounded by hooded torch-wielding figures, is, perhaps, wishful thinking. The other, in which one desires a bit more of the latent chemistry between Ms. Harrier’s bespectacled clotheshorse and Mr. Washington’s catchall period-piece dress-rehearsal charmer — he both looks and sounds more and more like his dashing father as the story progresses — occurs when Ron bristles when Patrice implicates those in his field with the epithet “pigs.” And though Patrice’s response to the ambivalent rebuke that ensues is apropos — as a modern-day corollary, imagine a would-be ally telling an activist fresh from Ferguson, what with its Operation Desert Shield-issue tanks and tear gas, that “blue lives” matter — like a half-exasperated Zora Neale Hurston-esque “What kind of Negro is you?” bon mot, I, nevertheless, sympathize with Ron, as can any African American in the corporate world today who is routinely asked to cloister away their blackness till it threatens to calcify to the point where one’s only interactions prioritize functionaries in predominantly white spaces — play-actors in so many hashtag-activist-inspired t-shirts, à la “Dear racism, I am not my grandparents,” whose target audience is either other bourgeois black folk, or yet to be determined. That said, there’s something about Ron’s jovial peacock strut, as the chronicle concludes, to the strains of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s 1970 single “Lucky Man” that says his impossible inhabitation of both worlds is especially inspirational.)

Patrice (Laura Harrier) sitting next to the man sitting next to The Man

If anything, “BlacKkKlansman” further complicates matters, as it illustrates precisely how white resentment, as a zero-sum contest once hosted by figures like Mr. Duke, whose aspirations toward a more clean-cut version of that sordid and time-honored tradition spawned, ironically, the polo-and-khakis aesthetic of the modern alt-right — distinguished as it is by its bitter animus aimed at the first black family — has not so much calcified as it has degenerated to the point where its ludicrous town criers of reverse-reverse racism have now turned on themselves, their anti-black antics having morphed into myriad anti-social behaviors in general, under the rubric of white pathology (Mr. Lee goes out of his way to document the Klan’s various crimes of misogyny and homophobia inflicted upon not only its own coconspirators, but also upon individual family members).

James Baldwin, who was right about everything, said, “In this debasement and definition of black people, [white people] debased and defined themselves.” They have brought us to the brink of oblivion because they think they are white, continues Mr. Baldwin, and “do not confront the ravage and the lie of their history.” The weight of that history strains us to a breaking point, as exhibited by the violence in Charlottesville last summer which resulted, tragically, in the death of Heather Heyer whom Mr. Lee lovingly memorialized with an August 10th release for this film. And it stands as a solemn reminder that it’s no longer “black and white” that the fight for the soul of America will be concerned, merely, with black against white.