Spike Lee is many things, but subtle is not one of them.
Some directors like to seduce you into their world by offering up a figure with whom you can relate, then putting them in jeopardy. As the relatable hero feels threatened, so do you, and the thing which threatens them becomes, by proxy, your enemy, too. When Clint Eastwood opens American Sniper with his hero killing Iraqi women and children in order to "protect his brothers," he assumes that you will identify with Chris Kyle because he's a red-blooded American Navy SEAL.
Lee has never been like that, even when he's doing a traditional war movie like 2008's Miracle at St. Anna. A Lee hero is faced with an ethical dilemma and spends the film either weighing both sides before deciding to act, or explaining why he made his decision. The classic example is Mookie, the protagonist played by Lee himself in Do the Right Thing, but you can also see the same dynamic in 25th Hour. The central question is not "will our hero prevail?" so much as "will this person choose to act heroically?" The fact that, decades later, people still debate whether or not Mookie did the "right thing" speaks to the intellectual and moral power of Lee's approach.
But while Lee's approach to heroism is nuanced, the way he presents his heroes' worlds and their choices is stark, bold, and in your face. Some directors are afraid to do anything that might puncture the veil of realism. Lee's concern is immediate emotional impact. If a split-screen is what's needed to drive the point home, Lee's gotta have it. If he thinks an exaggerated, stagey performance will create the emotional beat he's looking for, he'll rev up his actor: Compare Giancarlo Esposito's manic turn as Buggin' Out in Do the Right Thing to his stoic, richly textured portrayal of Gus Fring in Breaking Bad. When it works, we get the majestic sweep of Malcom X. When it doesn't, we get the disjointed, barely watchable Chi-Raq.
With the republic under siege by Trumpism, the time for subtlety has long passed. Lee rises to the occasion with BlacKkKlansman. When we meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), he's fresh out of the police academy when he gets a job at the Colorado Springs Police Department. At first, he's assigned to the evidence room, but when Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) comes to town to speak at the university, Stallworth is assigned to infiltrate the local campus activists, because he's the only black man on the force. Stallworth just wants to keep his head down and do his job, but the speech pricks his conscience. When he meets the supposedly menacing black radicals, they turn out to be nerdy kids led by beautiful student Patrice (Laura Harrier). Lee's impressionistic presentation of Ture's speech — and Stallworth's awakening — is the film's first transcendent moment.
- John David Washington and Topher Grace in BlacKkKlansman
To deepen Stallworth's dilemma, his superiors are so impressed with his first undercover assignment that they promote him to detective. While perusing the newspaper at the office one day, he happens across a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan, and on a lark, calls the number. Expecting to hear a recorded message, he's shocked when someone actually picks up the phone. Stallworth was not raised in the South and his years among cops at the academy have helped him perfect his code switching, so he sounds white enough to convince the Klan recruiter to set up a meeting. It's all so unexpectedly easy, he makes a rookie mistake: He gives out his own name instead of making up a cover identity.
Since Stallworth's giant natural haircut won't exactly fit under a Klan hood, he has to send in a ringer, in the person of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Flip finds that the local blood-and-soil types aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, and is instantly accepted into the haters club, despite the fact that he is clearly Jewish. Meanwhile, Stallworth works the phones until he's on a first-name basis with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
In Washington and Driver, Lee finds two actors who understand his methods and deliver exceptional performances. If Lee is unsubtle, it's because he's trying to point out America's racial blind spots to half his audience. His didactic tendencies that came off as too preachy in the Obama era seem all too timely now. Personally, I would have cut the coda that ties the "for real shit" of BlacKkKlansman to last year's deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving it to the audience to make the connection on their own. But this is a Spike Lee joint, and the great director wants to be damn sure you understand.