Let’s hope Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke sees this movie. Because unlike the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the late 70’s, you’ll get exactly what you expected from Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s latest joint (as he refers to his films) – a bold and brash yarn that deals in racism and rituals, then and now.
The “fo’ real, fo’ real shit” that BlacKkKlansman is based on concerns the story of how Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, managed to join the actual KKK in the ’70s with the help of a white, undercover cop colleague posing as him in person. The investigation, which includes trying to prevent cross burnings and violence in the streets, takes them all the way to the top with Stallworth shooting the shit over the phone with Duke while having no clue he’s not talking to a “pure white American” – even as he brags he knows how all black people speak. Yeah, this conversation really happened. And it’s as great as it sounds.
We see exactly what alchemy of polemic and charisma can bring a room full of people to shout “Black Power” or “White Power” and a harrowing true story of the worst kind of race hate and its consequences is given all the space it deserves. And yet on account of the titular shenanigans, a feel-good vibe is woven in and out
The movie, like its black klansman John David Washington (son of Denzel), has charm and swagger to spare. It’s by turns cheeky, suspenseful and disturbing, a period piece that has much to say about modern America; Lee’s signature double dolly shot is here, and Gone With The Wind and news footage from 2017 make appearances. The soundtrack is a mix of ’70s soul classics and composer Terence Blanchard’s moody guitar motifs. And the rest of the cast goes all-in too – Topher Grace is just delightful as the aforementioned all-American, apple-pie-and-picket-fences, hate-spouting David Duke.
If you read Ron Stallworth’s memoir, a quick 200 pages, you do get much more of a sense of what this sparky KK-caper actually achieved, in Colorado Springs and beyond, than BlacKkKlansman has time for. And the script has Hollywood-ised real life events somewhat. Characters like the student activist and love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier) and Jewish undercover cop Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (an understated Adam Driver) are fictional but they add more perspectives to the main plot. Patrice is modelled on real figures like activist Angela Davis and a few standout moments you’ll assume must be made up turn out to be true.
While the main thrust of Lee’s politics hits us over the head with a Klan member’s rifle, he does tease out some of the subtleties in Stallworth’s roles in society as both a black man and a “pig” police officer. It’s a reminder that the literal black and white approach to politics and power we see descending on Colorado Springs isn’t going to work.
Not to give too much away about what goes down in the final act but there’s a scene towards the end of BlacKkKlansman that serves as a stark contrast to the final moments of Jordan Peele’s smash comedy-horror hybrid Get Out. Peele, a producer on this project, was actually the person who passed the script based on the Stallworth story on to the iconic director in the first place.
The film is also especially interested in exploring the the power of words, mere words, to spur people into action. Lee gives a serious chunk of screen time to three impressive displays of rhetoric from Duke, civil rights organiser Kwame Ture and fictional activist Jerome Turner. We see exactly what alchemy of polemic and charisma can bring a room full of people to shout “Black Power” or “White Power” and a harrowing true story of the worst kind of race hate and its consequences is given all the space it deserves. And yet on account of the titular shenanigans, a feel-good vibe is woven in and out – when the Klan watches The Birth of a Nation together, we see them shoving popcorn in their mouths and shouting at the screen.
Lee has said that he wants this movie to encourage Americans to get out and vote in the US midterm elections coming up in October. Ron Stallworth might not have brought down the KKK but hey, he did something. He – a black man – got one over on a bunch of incompetent, yet dangerous, white supremacists, not to mention stalling and thwarting their activities in his city.
Spike Lee has much more than a roomful of people for his audience and this is his fiery speech. When he stops going for gags, Lee reminds us that we can’t simply close our eyes hoping the David Dukes of the world will disappear and BlacKkKlansman could be just the brazen wink needed to wake us up.