Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott
Directed by: Spike LeeBlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant. In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on. Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew. The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe. From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace. As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.
* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.
Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff.
Running Time: 135 mins.
Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”