By Noel Vera
Directed by Spike Lee
SO GET this — Ron Stallworth becomes the first black police officer in a large largely white town (the “Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force” as his superior puts it). He is consigned to the records room, requests a transfer to undercover; sees a recruitment ad for the KKK, dials the number, gets an unexpected voice at the other end, improvises a racist rant, is invited to join the group.
Sounds like one of the more outrageous skits dreamed up for the short-lived but memorable TV show In Living Color — but it’s a true story, based on Stallworth’s autobiographical account Black Klansman.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) isn’t subtle but it’s damned entertaining. Stallworth (played by Denzel’s son John David Washington) can’t go to the meeting himself (of course) so he sends Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver playing a heavily fictionalized character) in his place.
The film runs with this highly unlikely premise, and part of the fun of the picture is watching Stallworth and Zimmerman constantly being caught off-balance by the challenges and opportunities thrown their way, having to think fast on their feet in response. At one point one of the Klansmen suspects Zimmerman of being Jewish and wants to apply a lie-detector test at gunpoint; at another Stallworth finds himself on the phone with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (a hilariously bland Topher Grace) and they develop a surprisingly (Chillingly?) warm rapport.
Driver plays Zimmerman as an unselfconscious lump who, thanks to the Klan’s virulent anti-Semitism, develops some awareness of his racial identity. Grace’s Duke is by turns hilarious and frightening: hilarious in his obtuse racism, frightening in that his vanilla, almost wholesome, charm is what may have helped sell the Klan as an increasingly acceptable presence in 1970s America — a perhaps an even more acceptable presence in America today. In their scenes together Duke suggests a loneliness, a desire for contact that seems almost likable — Lee even feels he has to apply the brakes a little, have Stallworth motion his colleagues around him so they can have a collective laugh. It’s a tribute to Grace’s sly subversively vulnerable performance that you almost feel sorry for the man.
Almost. Lee blurs the lines a bit but at one point or the other makes it thoroughly blaringly clear where he stands on the issues, arguably the film’s main weaknesses. His Klan folk are mostly dense; paranoid but easy to outmaneuver; and unthinking in the way they mouth racist rants — Grace’s Duke is arguably an exception, though even he has his moments of fecklessness.
Lee begins the film with Alec Baldwin playing a fictitious professor clumsily speaking Klan talking points, forgetting his lines, asking for cues from an unseen assistant; big contrast to Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture) whose speaking engagement Ron is assigned to attend — Lee turns up the visual rhetoric during his speech, photographing Ture (Corey Hawkins) from various dramatic angles, confronting him with a sea of faces shining with admiration. Ron is understandably impressed, and feels doubt about his mission of infiltration.
That would be the film’s other main flaw: Boots Riley, director of the year’s other most outrageous comedy Sorry to Bother You, tweets an indictment of Ron Stallworth, claiming his role in monitoring black activist groups was more extensive and more malignant than what is shown on-screen.
Riley goes on to make other claims, some of which seem a little extreme, but his basic point is valid: history does suggest that the police and the FBI had an antagonistic even violent relationship with these groups (There’s no direct evidence linking Stallworth, but records were reportedly destroyed). Lee does go a long way to softening this period of Stallworth’s career — showing him voicing doubts, showing him form a relationship with a fictitious black activist girlfriend named Patrice (Laura Harrier) who further troubles his mind on the issue.
Lee eventually responded in an interview “Look at my films: they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color. I’m not going to say that. I mean, we need police.”
If the film has scenes that soft-pedal and fabricate — and Lee is hardly the first filmmaker to do so in a biopic — it also has scenes of considerable power. At one point, the Klan screens Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s monumental potboiler that helped revive the movement; Lee takes a page from Griffith’s own playbook and intercuts the screening with one Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) telling the true story of Jesse Washington, who was lynched in Waco, Texas. Lee later fast-forwards to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended with the death of Heather Heyer.
This, I submit, is Lee’s strongest point: if the racists portrayed in this picture are so easy to outwit then why Trump’s ascendancy? What led us to the Unite the Right rally, and why did that driver feel he had to ram his car into a crowd of people? Lee doesn’t provide answers — but he’s always been a provocateur, always willing to prod us to at least try and respond.
BlacKkKlansman is available on Youtube, Vudu, Amazon, and Google Play.
By Noel Vera