Postcard-worthy from every viewpoint, Garden of the Gods is the main fixture of the city of Colorado Springs, the prime attraction for venturous urban tourists and a beloved centerpiece for residents of the just-above-a-mile-high city. Visitors can roam through its zen-like trails in the morning and peer between its jagged cliffs to catch a breathtaking, sunset glimpse of the lush mountain town below. In calming moments like these, one can forget that quaint Colorado Springs was (and in some ways, still is) a hotbed of violence and racial intolerance. But Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman” reminds us that even in moments of peace and tranquility, great destruction is always leering around the mountain’s ledge.
All of Lee’s films can be seen as apropos to our current Trump moment. “Do The Right Thing” could happen as easily in today’s gentrified Brooklyn as it did in 1989’s Bed-Stuy. “25th Hour” and “Inside Man,” films initially birthed from the immediate post-9/11 distrust and xenophobia, amplify even louder in 2018. But “Blackkklansman” is particularly apt for the current moment, depicting the collective brutality of major institutions, and those groups’ members who question are forced to question their own identity as a result.
It’s also one of the few Spike Lee movies that is actually built from real-life events. Back in 1972, the clearly black Ron Stallworth ( joined the totally white Colorado Springs police department. Stallworth wanted to step up to real undercover work and was tasked with reporting on a black pride rally helmed by Kwame Ture, the Civil Rights leader formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. The cop’s curiosity reaches fever pitch when he gets in touch with the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and inquires about membership. Stallworth, obviously, is ineligible. But his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), is white, and can confidently pose in his black partner’s clothes since the klan members have no idea what Stallworth actually looks like. The ruse leads the two to discovering the klan’s upcoming terrorist threat, which they must dismantle before members before their faux hoods are finally unveiled.
All of the trademarks of Lee’s greatest cinematic works are present in “Blackkklansman”: The bizarre but fervent intros that extend outside the screen and slap you awake; the atypical, expertly considerable Terrence Blanchard score that blends the behest of Beethoven with the smoothest waves of the soul, funk and R&B ocean; and the cinematography of Chayse Irvin that casts truth and integrity in the shadows while still keeping our bright characters in full view. But the most peculiar success of this Spike Lee joint is the focus on conflict between personal identity and responsibility to larger groups. Stallworth is a steadfast lawman, a person whose veins would probably bleed royal police blue before they ever dripped an indication of black. He’s for the cause but not in the same way his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) is. Patrice says this makes him the enemy, Stallworth says she doesn’t understand. They’re each abiding by a set of rules that dictates their own universe but are incompatible when they become star-crossed.
And then there’s Flip, who is Jewish. It’s not something he tries to hide: after all, he does wear a Star of David on his neck. But it’s not something he actively reps or identifies with either, having not done the Bar Mitzvah rounds in his early teens, nor one to dabble in upper elevation synagogues on high holy days. Stallworth thinks Flip’s Judaism makes them kindred spirits, the shared persecution of their peoples and all. But Flip disagrees: he doesn’t have to tell people he’s Jewish, and save for when he actually meets real anti-semites like one of the Klan members, it’s not something people can immediately detect on him. But the entire KKK fiasco causes Flip to question his Judaism for the first time in his life. Not whether it should be a bigger part of his identity or small, but if it even is something truly ascribed to him to begin with.
All this amounts to an incisive and often funny picture not afraid to take leaps and risks in favor or more profound storytelling. The ending but tonally jarring, serving more as a call-to-action and less as an artistic conclusion. But it is appropriate, a cinematic moment that signifies the bizarre circumstances leading to this movie’s true events, and how the streams of hatred and civility both flow freely through time, but not enough passengers bother to ask which sea they’re sailing.