In BlacKkKLansman, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black man to serve as a Detective in the Colorado Spring Police Department, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and exposed their activities with stunning results. In an even more unusual turn of events, Stallworth – a rookie – took point on this mission and recruited the more experienced-and white-Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to handle the face-to-face meetings needed.
BlacKkKlansman‘s Based On A True Story
Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman unravel the hierarchy of the local chapter of the hate group, struggle to find a middle ground between them, and confront their own personal demons roused by the twists and increasingly distasteful turns of the case.
John David Washington and Adam Driver approach their roles with a seriousness that’s almost tangible. From the moment each appears on screen, they are Stallworth and Zimmerman. Their full investment in their characters makes for slick – a telling – byplay between the two that smoothly transitions into more serious dialogue and connection as the two further rely on each other as the case unfolds.
This build-up alone is a worthy tale unto itself and both the leads and supporting cast play their parts with such skill this film successfully walked a tightrope of racial discomfort inherent in its themes and the biographic narrative.
Stallworth’s first undercover assignment sees him spying on his own people at a speech by Kwame Ture née Stokely Carmichael hosted by the Colorado State University’s Black Student Union. His initial interaction and subsequent relationship with BSU President Patrice (Laura Harrier) creates room for conversation on topics that will feel familiar (and discomfiting) to many.
His actions trigger a rather pointed narrative thread through the remainder of the film driven by Stallworth’s motives, decisions, and place within the Black community centered around his choice to be a police officer and (often naive) faith in “working from the inside” to effect change for the Black community. Bravo to the writing team for substantively incorporating it all into the larger story at play because this struggle is real and often soul-stripping.
The conversations and scenes between Patrice and Ron are neatly juxtaposed with those between him and members of the KKK over the phone as he ingratiates himself and works to earn his membership into the hate group.
For those who may not have paid attention, BlacKkKlansman illustrates more than other films exactly how the war of attrition was waged (and won, hello 45) by the anti-black, Jew-hating, non-christian condemning segment of American society. They grew out their hair, pushed their less, “presentable” members into the background and re-branded themselves. This film puts the roots of that paradigm shift on display in a way that naturally draws the comparison to now.
This film may be a satire, but it had a wealth of real material to draw from and the writing team chose well. The choices all the characters must make and the consequences are in and of themselves telling particularly against the static backdrop of a time where being Black with a badge was no guarantee of safety.
Before it’s all finished playing out and the folder closes on this investigation if you’re still spouting lines like “Trump’s America” when describing the current state of racism, then you need to head back to the theater and watch BlacKkKLansman again. It’s past time to stop pretending the world woke up to renewed racism November 8, 2016, when the truth is, racism went corporate in the 80s and (successfully) political in the 90s straight through to now.
BlacKkKLansman is the love child of our need for an unsubtle message conveyed with satire, anecdotes, discomfort meeting the perfect vehicle for sharing.
And in addition to being a great example of skilled subliminal messaging, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKLansman is simply a good movie.
I say that because sometimes, filmmakers get too bogged down in the gritty themes to remember to have a narrative that makes a movie worth watching. This film exemplifies how to put forward a touch subject in a fictionalized way that educates and entertains. I laughed, flinched, commiserated, and identified with the little things as well as the big. Washington’s understated attitude was swaggering by the end and satisfyingly held the satire together. Topher Grace’s turn as David Duke was at turns comical and off-putting. Witnessing Flip Zimmerman’s increasing discomfort as he deals with Klan members and then shedding (sort of) the role to return to his brethren presents the toll this case takes in a way wholly unique to Stallworth’s journey. It’s more than a minor note and adds more nuance and depth as played (to great effect) by Adam Driver.
All the threads came together to give a glimpse into a time and place in a way, not in the standard Hollywood vein and social satires, and the filmmakers driving them, will be better for it.
Some may find Lee’s more controlled styling and tone to indicate that Lee is more interested in capturing a mainstream audience’s attention but to me, it felt balanced and purposeful. As though Lee was fully aware of who would be in the audience in a way he rarely exhibits care for in the past in his final cut. Stallworth’s daring caper takes place in the 1970s.
Both the film’s set design, wardrobe, and cinematic choices aptly invoke the social upheaval and dynamic of a time at the height of the struggle for Civil Rights without sucking the life (or joy) out of the time period.
The writing team (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee) put forward a script that tells the story with sharp wit, dry humor, and perfectly time irony.
When paired with Terence Blanchard’s score this effort sets the perfect backdrop and mood. Every scene enhances the slow creeping tension, BlacKkKLansman and enables Lee to present Stallworth’s story in a way that will:
- reach generations (and inform) that have never seen (or heard of) the original Birth of a Nation for themselves or watched an all-white audience of acolytes respond to it without restraint,
- shake up people’s understanding of what the ideology of ‘Black Power’ actually is instead of the slanted (and prejudiced) films and interview recaps intended to narrow the focus of a movement,
- inform, without patronizing, those who grew up disconnected from the intra-racial tensions of working to live a mainstream life but still being down for the cause, so to speak
- leave those who prefer to turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable that occurs around them daily no means to discount its narrative or the hate that makes it ever-relevant.
Unlike many other films in its type, BlacKkKLansman is rooted in Stallworths’ journey, not some outside precipitating event that puts the KKK on police radar. Stallworth answered an ad placed in the local paper by the KKK intended to recruit like-minded people. Although derived from true events, keeping this fact in the script as-is, alone may not sit well with some audience members, namely because white people are unused to being cast in the role of the antagonist as well, themselves.
For a Black man reading the paper and seeing a hate group advertising for members is cause enough for alarm, showcasing a Black officer acting on impulse to address it head on is a radical move. BlacKkKLansman finds its pacing and rhythm in the very awkwardness honesty with which Stallworth attempts to navigate not only the openly hostile reception he receives from many other officers but how this investigation even came to be.
I personally found it to be an excellent one for creating the room to permit the scenes to carry the message, the action, and dialogue to establish and imply and the action to illustrate and highlight. The style is recognizably Spike Lee and his restraint does more to make BlacKkKLansman hit home than all the overt tactics ever could.
It made for a great time at the movies because sometimes, you just need to watch a film with a purpose.
Spike Lee has always been a problematic filmmaker for me. Don’t get me wrong, his work always has a genius-tinged vision and his grasp and use of satire is in-and-of-itself revolutionary, but his execution in some films overshoots the mark. I’ve found that the punch in his parables frequently ends up jumbled through an overabundance of heavy-handed storytelling tactics intended to bring the audience into the narrative and then keep them open to the message embedded in the story. Spike Lee often has no faith in his audience and it shows in the final product.
But, from concept to completion, Lee’s BlacKkKLansman hits the right notes. This film is, at once, an exercise in critical thought, a dialed-in docudrama highlighting an oft-skewed in the retelling time in Black (and white) American history, and a near-faultlessly measured commentary on the evolution of race relations with just the right touch of Lee’s refrain of ‘wake the fuck up already’ to remind audiences he’s not just here to amuse and entertain.
Besides, I’m a sucker for a period film and this one ain’t playin’ around.
I don’t care your political leanings or the socio-economic status driving your belief system or how deeply-rooted in your version of the American dream you’re living life. Put it all on a shelf because BlacKkKLansman should not be missed. If you sit through the entire film and leave in doubt of its relevance and the lessons to be learned, seek help.