Director Spike Lee drapes himself in an upside-down, black-and-white American flag in New York last month. In BlackKKlansman, Lee uses the true story of a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s to once again grapple with American racial terrorism. 

Director Spike Lee drapes himself in an upside-down, black-and-white American flag in New York last month. In BlackKKlansman, Lee uses the true story of a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s to once again grapple with American racial terrorism. 

Heather Sten/The New York Times

The new Spike Lee joint BlacKkKlansman ends with footage of last August's Unite the Right rally, in which hundreds of white supremacists marched, bellowed and clashed with counter-protesters. Lee also includes the incidents of the following day, when a self-avowed Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd, killing 23-year-old Heather Heyer; and the subsequent comments from President Donald Trump, that there were "very fine people on both sides."

BlackkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth,an undercover police officer played by John David Washington (son of Denzel), who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs back in 1979. Lee's film is a genre movie with an edge, rife with comedic elements of deception and incongruity. But there's seriousness to Lee's intent, brought home by the documentary denouement. This is still happening, the ending says. Right now. Resurging, in the year 2018.

It's not pretty, which is one reason for the touches of comedy: Sometimes you need to laugh to keep from screaming.

BlacKkKlansman isn't even the most scabrous comedy take on a black Klansman. That would be Clayton Bigsby, the blind, black white supremacist who has no idea he's black, played by Dave Chappelle on his incendiary Chappelle's Show. Bigsby speaks at Klan rallies and rails against blacks, Jews, Asians and homosexuals. Then he makes the mistake of removing his hood, at which point a fellow white supremacist's head literally explodes. Chappelle didn't do anything halfway. For a softer but still raucous take on the black Klansman, see Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles.

But BlacKkKlansman is hardly just for yuks. Lee and his team of writers are attuned to the ways of modern white supremacy, particularly its buttoned-down, respectable façade. In the course of his investigation, Stallworth becomes telephone buddies with David Duke (played by Topher Grace), then Grand Wizard of the KKK. Duke, a fervent Holocaust denier who heartily endorsed Trump for president, comes off as the Klan's presentable public face, clad in a suit and speaking in a code. He's not about to mention lynching or cross-burning. Polite pseudoscience and historical distortion are his standard operating procedure. He is the Klan rebranded for for the age of "white nationalism" and, now, "alt-right." And yes, he's the butt of many jokes in the film, as when he tells Stallworth over the phone how easy it is to determine when you're talking to a black person or a white person.

In one scene Duke joins his fellow Colorado Springs Klansmen for a festive screening of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's 1915 melodrama that invented the Hollywood blockbuster and revived the KKK for the post-Reconstruction era. President Woodrow Wilson was said to have described the film as "history writ with lightning." The heroes, of course, are the Klan, riding in to the save the day from emancipated blacks and Northern carpetbaggers.

Birth is the Klan's sacred text, a dark testament to the power of cinema. By including it in his movie, Lee is claiming this power for his own purposes, much as he did with the minstrel images at the end of Bamboozled. BlacKkKlansman is his warning and reminder, wrapped in entertainment. The hoods may be out of style, but the hate is alive and well.

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