Incendiary history lesson exposes ugly truths about racism in America
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver & Laura Harrier
Directed by Spike Lee
In theaters Aug. 10, 2018
That’s not a typo—there’s an extra “k” in there, between “Black” and “Klansman.”
Director Spike Lee’s new movie, his 30th feature film, is the wildly true tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK, in the 1970s.
Lee has never pulled punches with his films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing. You never leave one of his movies wondering where he’s coming from, what he means, or what you’re supposed to think.
BlacKkKlansman is a straight-up, fire-breathing story about the long, painful scar of racism in America.
John David Washington (he’s the son of actor Denzel Washington) plays Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first police detective “of color” in Colorado Springs in 1972.
Working his way out of the file room, rookie Stallworth soon lands a much more interesting assignment. Cold-calling a recruitment ad in back of the local newspaper for the Klan, he impersonates a white racist on the phone and sets up a meeting to learn more about how he can join.
Of course, this presents a problem—since Stallworth is black. So the police chief (Robert John Burke, from TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) pairs him with another, more seasoned—white—detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the two of them become “one.” Flip will be the fake Ron that actually meets the Klan in person; the real Ron will continue to cultivate sources over the phone, take photos and gather intel.
So, if you’re keeping score: Stallworth is black, Zimmerman is Jewish, and they “doubly disguise” themselves to dupe the most dangerously racist organization in America—from the inside.
It sounds crazy and absurd, but it all really happened—as told in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir (Black Klansman) on which the movie is based. Lee sets everything up with juicy, funky, ’70s retro detail, and there are touches of humor and sweetness and light to leaven the toxic bigotry at the dark heart of the story, especially in scenes between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier, who played high-schooler Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming), the passionate local soul sister and civil rights organizer who has no idea he’s really an undercover cop.
The movie really kicks into gear when Flip meets the Klan—or “The Organization,” as they prefer to call it. Walter (Ryan Eggold, Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) is the local leader, reminding attendees at a weekly meeting that, for the next cross burnings, “the highest hills get the most eyes.” As the sloth-like Ivanhoe, Paul Walter Hauser lets it slip that he actually likes Sammy Davis Jr., because he can dance. Nicholas Turturro plays an explosives expert, brought in covertly for a special occasion. Felix (Finnish actor Jasper Pååkkönen, who plays Hafdan the Black on Vikings) smells a rat—or more specifically, a Jew.
There are some tense moments when Felix tries to hook Flip up to a “Jew” detector polygraph, and when Flip and Ron risk exposure by bumbling facts of their fabricated story. Everything builds to an explosive climax, an event with a young Klan Grand Wizard-to-be David Duke (Topher Grace) at which both the real Ron and the fake Ron/Flip are present.
Alec Baldwin opens the film as a racist “intellectual” raging about the “mongrel race” of “black beasts” and “Jewish-controlled puppets” on the Supreme Court. Toward the end of the movie, musical legend Harry Belafonte plays a speaker addressing a rapt civil rights rally crowd, telling the true story of Jesse Washington, a young black man who was horrifically lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of raping a white woman.
Corey Hawkins (Eric Carter on TV’s 24: Legacy) galvanizes an audience as black activist Stokely Carmichael, nè Kwame Ture, forcefully reminding them that Uncle Sam wants to send young black men to fight and die in Viet Nam, while cops are shooting them (“in the back!”) in the streets.
The movie is set in the early 1970s, but make no mistake—director Lee draws a scalding, shameful timeline from America’s past to its present. He uses clips from director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a seminal but controversial and wildly racist film, one that glorified the origin of the Klan and demonized blacks—and Gone With the Wind, which hyper-romanticized the downfall of South and slavery, all to the wistful tune of Dixie.
Lee incorporates footage of the deadly 2017 white nationalists rally in Charlottesburg, Va. (“Jews will not replace us!”), and a clip of modern-day David Duke aligning himself with President Trump, who proclaimed that there were “good people” on both sides of the event.
And when Duke rallies his faithful with the phrase “America first,” it rings as a harrowing reminder of where audiences have heard it most recently elsewhere—used by the current Commander in Chief as his mantra in his inaugural address, and repeated as his diplomatic policy.
One of the movie’s producers is Jordan Peele. You might recall that he was the director of last year’s Get Out, in which a young black man finds himself trapped in a racist nightmare. BlacKkKlansman is about a nightmare of another kind, an ugly national one, in which America has been mired, one way or another, since its beginning.
In one scene, Flip and Ron discuss their differences about their assignment. “For you, it’s a crusade—for me, it’s a job,” Flip tells him. Ron counters by pressing Flip about his Jewish background, about why what he’s seeing and hearing, in the actual physical presence of such hateful spew from such noxious characters, doesn’t bug him.
“Why you actin’,” Ron asks him, “like you ain’t got no skin in the game?”
That’s a question Lee’s powerful, potent gut-punch of a movie asks us all, no matter what color our skin might be.