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Lee Shall Overcome

Spike Lee
Spike Lee
Focus Features
 135 Minutes
Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver  

Truth is definitely stranger than fiction, and few true stories are as bizarre as the tale of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, CO, in the 1970’s, who actually wound up becoming a member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and, during his stint as an undercover investigator, exposed a lot of information about illegal Klan activities. Now, some 40 years after Stallworth’s exploits, director Spike Lee turns that story into BlacKkKlansman, a movie that’s equal parts dark comedy, suspense thriller, and insightful statement on the status of race relations in the United States, both in the 1970’s and today.


For those wondering how a black man could infiltrate the Klan, the simple answer is that Stallworth had some help in the person of a white cop, here named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who posed as Stallworth for in-person meetings with the Klansmen (in his memoir on which BlacKkKlansman is based, Stallworth only refers to the white cop as “Chuck”). Stallworth’s undercover effort is part of his desire to get out of a nightmarish succession of evidence room assignments and become what he felt a real cop should be. He gets his wish when the chief (Robert John Burke) assigns him to infiltrate a speech by activist Stokely Carmichael, now known as Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). There, he meets future love interest Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who has a hate-all-cops attitude based on bitter experience. That leads to a romance between the two, although Stallworth doesn’t reveal what he actually does for a living.


After the Carmichael assignment, Stallworth calls up the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretty much on a whim after seeing a recruitment ad in a newspaper. Once on the phone with the chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), Stallworth espouses his belief in white supremacy (using the N-word and numerous other racial slurs about blacks, Jews, and other minorities), impressing Walter, who soon invites him to a local meeting. Of course, Zimmerman poses as Stallworth at the meeting and continues the racist diatribe, leading to an eventual invitation to become a member. Along the way, Stallworth speaks extensively with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who later appears in Colorado Springs for Stallworth’s induction to the Klan. That meeting winds up providing cover for a plot hatched by Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakonen), a more hotheaded member of the Colorado Springs Klan chapter, who plans to set off a bomb at an undisclosed location.


It’s almost impossible to pigeonhole BlacKkKlansman as any particular type of movie. Lee (who also co-wrote the script) realizes right off the bat that the entire concept of a black man and a Jew posing as Ku Klux Klan wannabes has a considerable degree of humor to it, so he plays up many of the vulgar slurs for laughs, especially when delivered over the phone by Stallworth, who often tries to hold his laughter back when talking about how much he hates blacks. All the while, the Klansmen with whom he talks accept everything he says at face value, impliedly because they enjoy encountering a kindred spirit with whom they can let down their hair and avoid using euphemistic expressions.  


At times, Lee goes a bit overboard in his portrayal of the Klansmen as bumpkins, especially one drunken dimwit named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). The Klansmen are never likable—they are irredeemable racists—but it becomes hard to take their threat seriously when they come across as Rocky Mountain equivalents of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe. These bumbling caricatures, especially evident in their bomb plot which is hopelessly amateurish and ineptly staged, cut against the effectiveness of some of the actual suspenseful scenes in BlacKkKlansman, such as one in which a drunken Felix accuses Zimmerman of being Jewish and demands to see “proof” he is not. It takes some fast thinking for the undercover cops to extricate themselves from that situation, one of the best moments in the film.


But whenever audiences begin to take the film and the menace that the Klan represents too lightly, Lee pulls them back in with some masterful work, such as a sequence that crosscuts between Zimmerman and the other Klan recruits watching a showing of Birth of a Nation, whose most offensive stereotypes are cheered on wildly, and a veteran civil rights leader played by Harry Belafonte addressing a group of black students and describing a real life lynching, complete with some vintage photos of the event. Those five minutes of screen time rank among Lee’s best work ever.


Of course, despite its entertainment value, BlacKkKlansman is first and foremost a political piece, filmed by Lee against the backdrop of race relationships in the current Presidential administration. Lee’s point is most evident in his depiction of David Duke as a “new type” of Klan leader, one looking to get into politics and savvy enough to tone down his rhetoric in public while still revealing the full range of his vile and hatred amongst kindred spirits at Klan gatherings and when addressing Stallworth. Ironically, the real Duke puts in an appearance at the end of the movie, when Lee adds documentary footage of last year’s Charlottesville riots, driving home the point that the racial animosity on display in the movie wasn’t a dying relic of bygone days but a white supremacist force that continues to rear its ugly head today.


BlacKkKlansman is probably Lee’s most mainstream film since his last commercially successful movie, 2006’s Inside Man. Obviously, it’s a movie that will appeal most to those who share Lee’s political beliefs. However, it’s not a fist pounding “message movie.” Instead, Lee mixes his message with some moments of pure entertainment delight, such as a sequence in which Stallworth and Patrice compare and contrast various blaxploitation heroes. And, it’s a character piece as well, with Stallworth coming across as a man who recognizes the truth of much of Kwame Ture’s rhetoric and Patrice’s militancy while still believing in the justice system and the ability for him to achieve progress as a cop in that system. Zimmerman too faces his own dilemma as a non-practicing Jew who nonetheless must face the worst sort of anti-Semitism head on without flinching or backing away (see clip below).


BlacKkKlansman isn’t a perfect mix of all its elements, but it comes quite close. Spike Lee has made a movie whose message is more effective by being delivered in the middle of an entertaining commercial film. Indeed, cut away the political imagery and just consider the remaining material as an action comedy and it’s still a worthwhile watch. But by combining everything into one powerful package, Spike Lee has made the first, and what will probably be one of the best, inquiries into how much race relations in this country really have changed over the last few decades.

In this clip, John David Washington and Adam Driver discuss their reasons for infiltrating the Klan (R-rated language).

Read other reviews of BlacKkKlansman: 

BlacKkKlansman (2018) on IMDb