Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It's alternately comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it's also one of Lee's more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don't know that I've ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully.
Based on a crazy true story, BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth's white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work.
In some ways, the investigation of the Klan feels like Ron's attempts to solve this tension between his dedication to police work and his growing activism. Ron wants to reconcile his two tribes by going after a common adversary. This awakening awareness of identity goes beyond just Ron: Flip repeatedly gets asked by Klan members if he's a Jew. He later confides to Ron that, while he is Jewish, he wasn't raised with any sense of difference. "I never thought about it before," he says, but now, "I'm thinking about it all the time." Lee is the rare director who can maintain the integrity and beauty of a film overstuffed with ideas. He prefers vigor over rigor; he's an artist of chaos and energy, of blurred character lines and narrative curlicues.