By almost all accounts in the nearly 18 months since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, there has been a significant increase in hate crimes and anti-minority groups in the United States. This was highlighted by the incendiary clashes between White Supremacist groups and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. These far-right groups yelled anti-Black and anti-Jewish chants while carrying lit torches that evoked Nazi-era and KKK imagery that many believed were relics of the past. Based on the narrative Spike Lee weaves in telling the true story of Ron Stallworth, it’s clear these events inspired BlacKkKlansman, which debuted Monday night at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
The picture begins with a scene from Gone with the Wind that finds Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) making her way through a mass of injured soldiers while the camera pans up to eventually reveal a confederate flag. It’s followed by a short prologue that features Alec Baldwin as a ‘50s or ‘60s-era white rights advocate recording an educational film about the scourge of the negro race. The two segments frame the racial discourse Lee wants to highlight before introducing us to the film’s hero, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, very good).
It’s the early 1970s and Stallworth has just started as a police officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department. The only black officer on the force, Stallworth is immediately bored with his rookie assignment in the records room and eventually convinces Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke, effective) to put him somewhere more fitting for his talents. He gets more than he bargained for as the Chief has decided that as part of the station’s investigative unit, he’ll go undercover to check out a former Black Panther member who is speaking at a Colorado State Black Student Union event. This is the first time Stallworth is confronted with members of the black community who are adamantly against the police. It’s a theme Lee revisits throughout the film: Can you actually make change when you are working for a group that’s systematically discriminating against your own race? It becomes even more complicated by the mutual romantic sparks with the president of the BSU, Patrice (Laura Ruth Harrier, winning), who is unaware of his true profession.
Sometime later Stallworth is casually reading the local paper when he happens to see an ad for a local Klu Klux Klan chapter. He calls up trying to find more information, ripping on Black and Jewish people to make his case. This causes all the other detectives in his department to turn their heads to him quizzically after he gives out his real name to the chapter president. After hanging up, one of his coworkers, Flip (Adam Driver, fantastic), wonders how he’s going to meet them since he, again, gave them his real name. Before you know it, their supervising captain is on board with Stallworth’s plan to have Flip play “Ron Stallworth” in person and for Stallworth to play himself whenever talking to the organization on the phone. It’s a crazy scheme, but it somehow works as “Ron Stallworth” infiltrates a group with some ambitiously dangerous members such as Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen, you’d never know he was Finnish) who are off kilter enough to do something truly dangerous.
Oh, and then there’s the fact Stallworth developed a phone friendship with none other than a relatively young David Duke (Topher Grace, nice change of pace). Stallworth needed to rush “Ron Stallworth’s” KKK membership application so he could attend meetings. The only way to do that was to call headquarters where, yep, Duke answered the phone. It would be unbelievable if it wasn’t true, and is made even more disconcertingly relevant by Duke’s appearance at the Charlottesville rallies almost five decades later.
The conversations between Stallworth and Duke are some of the funniest moments of the movie as Lee and co-screenwriters David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott frame Duke’s smug ignorance. He tells Stallworth he’d know if a black man were speaking to him on the phone because of how he pronounced words and he strikingly alludes to the now familiar rants of “making America great again” and “America first” as talking points.
Lee engages with a lot of humor in BlacKkKlansman which is a nice counterpart to the inherently serious nature of the material. Lee not only tackles racial discrimination, but sexism, anti-Semitism and, for a brief moment, homophobia as well. The legendary filmmaker has good reason to, as they are all key aspects of the KKK’s white domination agenda. Simply everyone was under attack when this took place 45 years or so ago and those groups are once again under attack (or never stopped being under fire) today.
The recent honorary Oscar winner also includes the history of D.W. Griffith‘s 1915’s “blockbuster” Birth of a Nation and how it not only revived a dormant KKK but gave white America a free pass at lynching and killing black Americans. He uses a debate between Stallworth and Patrice over ‘70s blaxploitation stars to frame the movie stylistically. Lee not only discusses these films but includes clips to make his case. And, eventually, he brings footage of Trump himself onto his canvas.
The real Stallworth investigation ended dramatically with the story being lost to history until his novel was published in 2014. Lee’s montage at the end of the film wants to make sure the audience knows what might have been a happy-ish ending in 1972 isn’t one today. Quick spoiler alert on how Lee ends the picture….
BlacKkKlansman comes to a close in a fury of footage from Charlottesville, Trump’s godawful comments on it and the domestic terrorist attack that found one innocent counter protester killed. The film has few missteps, but nothing seems more out of place than a title card for victim Heather Heyer. [End of spoiler talk.]
Lee also has some issues completely balancing the humor, drama, social commentary and dramatic tension over the KKK’s Colorado plan. And yet the fact that he is able to make so much of it gel is why it’s arguably his best film since 2006’s Inside Man. A crusading Spike Lee is often the best Spike Lee. He’s a powerful artist and when he has a lot to say, as in the case with BlacKkKlansman, he simply won’t let you forget it.