Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is more than just interested in the problems of “passing”: It’s obsessed by them, as you see in its improbable but true story of a black police detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who successfully takes on the persona of a recruit for a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Anticipating Sorry to Bother You by a few decades, the real Stallworth accomplished this feat in 1979 by using his white voice over the phone.
Some filmmakers would be content to turn this episode into a bizarre police procedural. Lee prefers to expand on it, using the story to explore the black American “twoness” of identity that one of his characters cites, name-checking W.E.B. Du Bois—a double consciousness that has sometimes tried to resolve itself in a single outward falsehood. In BlacKkKlansman, these dynamics of imposture go far deeper than the uneasy situation at the plot’s core. They complicate all of Stallworth’s relationships: with his incipient lover, Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pigs-hating college radical to whom he can’t own up to being a cop; with his partner in the investigation (Adam Driver), a thoroughly acculturated Jew whom Stallworth accuses of passing as gentile; and, of course, with himself.
The very first time that Stallworth goes on assignment as a detective, he’s required to melt into the young audience at a speech given by Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where the topic is the need for black people to purge the ideas about themselves that they’ve swallowed at the insistence of whites. A shift in self-alignment plays visibly across Stallworth’s face, as he progresses from awkwardly mouthing “Right on!” responses (a beat too late) to taking Ture in with wide, moist eyes.
So many instances of passing run through the film, at levels from the common daily acts of self-betrayal to a historic coup of Klan-busting, that I’m left wondering: What kind of movie is BlacKkKlansman passing for? The answer, when it comes, is unmistakable. Having spent more than two hours pretending to abide in the commercially imposed mode of narrative fiction, in which BlacKkKlansman has struck poses, lurched from scene to scene, and only intermittently generated moments of suspense or sharp laughter, the film in its last minutes breaks into the realm of documentary, freeing itself and walloping the audience.
Lee devotes the finale to a montage of horrifying archival footage of the August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and of the majestic equanimity in the response of Donald J. Trump, who felt that a violent mob of neo-Nazis must surely include “very fine people.” In retrospect, you feel that everything Lee has contrived with the fictionalized characters and action of BlacKkKlansman leads to these moments of current reality. Nothing else he does in the film lives up to their impact.
Not that he lacks for ideas. He even seems to enjoy some of them and wants to share the fun with the audience, as when Stallworth and his partner Zimmerman rehearse in the locker room of police headquarters before the latter’s first meeting with the Klan. It’s two acting workshops in one: Stallworth coaches Zimmerman to match his vocal intonations, which the Klan leader has heard over the phone, while Washington and Driver demonstrate how to play bounce-and-catch with the rhythm of a comic scene.