Spike Lee’s scorching film, BlacKKKlansman, is the true story of how a black police officer in the 1970’s penetrates the veil of “The Organization”, the Ku Klux Klan.
Released in August of 2018, director Spike Lee tells the story of how Jordan Peele pitched the story of Ron Stallworth to him. Lee admits that he had never heard the story of a Colorado Springs police officer who went undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. BTW…did I mention that Ron Stallworth is a black man? Most of us haven’t heard of Ron Stallworth or his story. Even if we did, the story sounds totally implausible. I mean, really. A black man becomes a member of the KKK and lives to tell about it? I had to get to the theater to check this out for myself. In the end, I realized that I had just watched the best Spike Lee joint in years.
The film opens with a scene from “Gone With The Wind” and then a cameo appearance by Alec Baldwin who, as an unnamed race theorist, paints a dark picture of “the spread of integration and miscegenation” in 1970’s. He warns of the demise of America due to the “Jew-controlled Supreme Court” allowing the mixing of “mongrel races ” with white people. The connection to the modern day “Make America Great Again” mantra is felt and is one of the many ways Lee seamlessly connects the past with present-day events. I don’t believe that it is coincidental that the film was released on the anniversary weekend of white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, VA last year which took the life of 32-year old Heather Heyer. Spike warns us from the jump that this is “some fo’ real shit”. Some fo’ real shit, indeed.
The main story line starts with Stallworth, played by John David Washington (Ballers, Love Beats Rhymes) being interviewed to become Colorado Spring’s first black police officer. He starts out in the Records department, having to deal with the taunts from a few of the other officers’ racial epithets without losing his cool. He moves up quickly when he is asked to go undercover to gather intel on former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, who is giving a speech at the local college’s Black Student Union. It is during this scene where the sub-plot and Stallworth’s love interest is revealed. More on that later.
After Ron successfully completes the Carmichael assignment, the Chief moves him to “Intelligence”. One day, Ron is at his desk, reading the newspaper. He sees an ad placed by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He picks up the phone and begins to slowly dial the rotary phone. I got the impression that he calls the number as a gag. No one answers the phone, so he leaves a message not realizing that he used his real name. A couple of minutes later, his phone rings. This is where the movie gets interesting…it’s where the realities of American racism are shown to be less of a hidden lifestyle and exactly the dark and not-so-open hatred that it is.
Stallworth knows that he couldn’t penetrate the wall of the KKK strictly over the phone, so he enlists the help of fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman. Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Paterson) grudgingly agrees to be the “white face” of Ron Stallworth. Stallworth handles all communication over the phone and Zimmerman is charged with the face-to-face interactions.
I’ve come to know what to expect from a Spike Lee film. There is always a certain disconnected vibe that I get; as if you were to drop a completed jigsaw puzzle back into the box and it broke into pieces, but you manage to still see the whole picture. This is what I think of when I watch one of his joints. Only Quentin Tarantino compares to Lee in this regard (think Django Unchained). At times, the imagery is surreal and almost dreamlike. During the Stokely Carmichael scene, Lee shoots from traditional shots and angles, yet interposes singular shots of audience members staring toward the stage in black and white silhouettes. Those dramatic and ethereal frames left me with the impression that the audience was hypnotized by the persona of Carmichael and observing his words as though through osmosis. Another interpretation of the imagery is that “the good colored citizens” of Colorado Springs were being brainwashed. Either way, the scene was shot in a way that could be perceived a few different ways by each film-goer.
David Duke, played masterfully by Topher Grace (That 70’s Show, Spider-Man 3), connects with Washington’s character over the phone and the interactions between the two are some of the highlights of the film. Duke feels comfortable with Stallworth and engages him in meaningful conversation about their “shared” beliefs. The irony couldn’t be missed. As a side note, even though the movie put a human face on Duke, the underlying vibe to the character was one of palatable hate wrapped in a gift box. The kind if you never knew his name, he would be just another Joe on the street. That’s the thing about racism. It lives among us and, unless something extraordinary happens, we never see it.
Lee delivers a fun film whose premise is so wild and unbelievable, you almost feel compelled to go see it. This is exactly the type of film that he is known for and the reason he remains relevant after all these years. You can watch BlacKKKlansman on multiple streaming platforms.