Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.
But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.
It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.
Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).
This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.
BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.
Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.
Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.
One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.
The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).
On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues. There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.
John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this. We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.
Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.
He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”
Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).
And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.
Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”
That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so. Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.
Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.
However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.
I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).
The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.
I think what Spike Lee films do best is to say that this “problem” is not going to go away… It cannot until we ALL address it, because we are ALL participants to one degree or another, willing or unwilling. Before we had the luxury of assuming we just couldn’t comprehend the existence of any problem…that we were blinded by our own times. Now, however, it is clear we are obstinate teenagers pretending not to hear the alarm clock because we just don’t want to go to school…