In 1979, an African-American police officer named Ron Stallworth became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan as part of an undercover operation. He would send a white co-worker to play him for in-person meetings, but Stallworth was the one on the phone, insisting on his hatred for non-white races to everyone from local chapter members to the KKK’s “grand wizard,” David Duke.
Stallworth’s story provides the framework for Spike Lee’s blistering new film, “BlacKkKlansman,” but it is hardly the full picture. In “BlacKkKlansman” Lee has made an immensely entertaining film about everything: love, friendship, ambition, civil rights, the power of words and images to uplift and destroy and the various shades and ideologies of racism and revolution. You will leave craving another viewing of the film, which was co-written by University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott.
John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son) plays Stallworth, who was the first African-American police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He’s a composed and deliberate man who isn’t afraid to ask for what he wants, whether it’s a job or a quick promotion out of the dreaded records room and into undercover work.
Many around him are quick to make assumptions about what he can and can’t do. His co-worker calls him a toad. His black student union girlfriend, Patrice, asks if he’s a pig (i.e. a cop). At work, he seems extreme — a rookie suggesting a dangerous undercover operation. In life, he seems compliant. .
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But Ron has a plan to infiltrate The Organization, and a few around him — the police chief (Robert John Burke) and two detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi) — are willing to go along with it for a while. Flip is in-person Ron, which turns out to be a headache of its own when one of the members suspects that he might be Jewish.
These scenes are riveting to watch, infused with a perfectly executed tension as Flip carefully navigates his way through meetings and interactions with the group. They are, on the whole, dopes used for comedic effect, but there is something else going on below the surface. You’re always keenly aware that these shadowy, back bar racists could, with the right leader, become the mainstream.
The acting is expert throughout, with standout performances by Washington and Driver, especially, who gets a powerful arc. The supporting cast is also notably strong, including Topher Grace as David Duke, who is attempting to take The Organization into the mainstream with a gentlemanly demeanor, polished suits and a politician’s smile.
Mind you, “BlacKkKlansman” is not a subtle film and is often repetitive where it least needs it. Stallworth’s “white voice” and racist musings over the phone are perfectly used a few times, until the effect eventually begins to dull.
But it is an exhilarating, distressing, funny and profound film, with one of the more memorable film scores in years, from composer Terence Blanchard. Every frame is packed with meaning and metaphor, from the opening (the famous crane shot from Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind”) onward to the sins of the present day. It’s a Spike Lee joint that is not to be missed.
Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.