R, 135 mins.
2018, R, 135 mins.
John David Washington as Ron Stallworth / Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman / Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas / Topher Grace as David Duke / Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges / Alec Baldwin as Actor
Directed by Spike Lee / Written by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, based on the book by Ron Stallworth
Writer/director Spike Lee has made a career out of making racially charged dramas that push all kinds of buttons with his unique brand of in-your-face bluntness. BLACKkKLANSMAN boldly and proudly continues this trend for the acclaimed filmmaker, which finds inspiration in a highly bizarre, yet absolutely real story that's set forty years ago, but somehow manages to hold up a mirror to our current divisive times.
represents perhaps the ultimate fusion of Lee's artistic aims to make something
deeply personal, yet mainstream at the same time.
The end result is not only his best film in a decade-plus, but also
one of the finest films of 2018. It's thought provoking, politically charged, darkly comical,
and hauntingly timely.
And, man oh man, the fact based story behind his latest joint - which the opening title cards humorously relay is "Based on some fo' real, FO' REAL shit!" - is a real intoxicating humdinger.
Based on the 2014
memoir of the same name by Ron Stallworth, BLACKkKLANSMAN deals with the
author's past life as one of the first African American police
officers/detectives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Back in 1979 the young up and coming Stallworth noticed a local ad
for the city's Ku Klux Klan that were looking to recruit eager new
members. Stallworth had the
radical idea of calling the recruitment number listed and posing as a
toxically racist white man that was desperately wanting to join their
ranks. His phone ruse
ultimately worked, seeing as he was eventually granted membership and,
when he was required for face-to-face meet-ups with KKK leaders and
members, he sent in a white police officer in his place to help maintain
his cover. Over the course of
several months Stallworth and his partner dug deep into the dark
underbelly of the KKK and even managed to expose planned acts of violence
on their part. The central irony of Stallworth's early career is undeniable:
He not only had to infiltrate and deal with the deplorably shameful
bigotry of the KKK, but also that of fellow white officers in his own
police department that saw his mission - and hiring - as a cruel
affirmative action joke.
Lee has an awful
lot more up his sleeve than making BLACKkKLANSMAN a pure historical police
procedural. Of course, the film is a chronicle of Stallwarth dealing with
intolerance on the work front and on the 1970's streets, but Lee uses his
true story to act as a springboard for a larger conversation about the
systemic racism that has typified American cinema as a whole.
BLACKkKLANSMAN opens rather pointedly with one of the more famous
shots in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, which pans away from thousands upon
thousands of injured Civil War soldiers and ends on an unnerving lingering
shot of a billowing Confederate flag. From there Lee segues to a white supremacist making a
propaganda short film, during which time he fumbles lines preaching the
virtues of the purity of his Caucasian race while degrading all other
"mongrel" nations. His
mean spirited vitriol makes for a scene that's awfully difficult to watch,
but it purposely serves the larger point of showcasing the type of
cultural milieu that the KKK thrived on decades ago...and what many a white
supremacist group sadly still adhere to even today.
And because the bespectacled man in the hate mongering video is
played by Alec Baldwin it comes off as both darkly comical and frightening
all the same.
Lee then journeys
into into the larger story of Ron Stallworth (played in a career making
performance by John David Washington, son of Denzel, the latter who very
famously played Malcolm X for Lee decades earlier) and how he managed to
get his job with the Colorado Springs Police Department, but being the
first black cop on the force isn't easy for him.
At the beginning, he's delegated to menial file clerking duties
while having to fend off the racist insults of his fellow officers on
duty. Despite overwhelming
hardships, Ron senses a lucrative chance to prove himself as a worthy
member of the force when he comes up with his inspired and aforementioned
idea to go undercover and break down the local KKK from the inside out.
Now, impersonating a white bigot over the phone is one thing, but
being able to get into this group's inner circle on a deeply personal
level is a whole other challenge, which ultimately goes to his white
partner, Flip Zimmerman (a never been better Adam Driver), a Jewish man
that's faced with the unenviable task of faking that he's a Jew and
minority hater to this group to gain admission.
While Flip slowly and methodically serves as Ron in body and spirit
with the KKK, Ron remains at the station to further insinuate himself into
the group over the phone, and even manages to strike up a long distance
phone friendship with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (a chillingly and
quietly frightening Topher Grace).
mission by Ron and Flip is endlessly fascinating on multiple levels.
On one hand, Ron finds himself joining ranks with the police - an
institution that, for its time, was vehemently despised by his fellow
black community as being part of a larger societal ill - that requires him
to tackle prejudice on multiple fronts, especially while dealing with
early rookie assignments that would have had many a rookie quit early.
But his pure and insatiable ambition to do
something that would empower and set himself proudly apart from other officers is what
fuels him. Granted, Ron does
make some laughably dimwitted choices as a rookie (like, for example,
using his actual name over the phone with the KKK, which complicates
matters immensely), but he's definitely no dope, and the manner that he
perseveres and manages to get in tight with the Klan - and mostly over the
phone, no less - is beyond brilliant.
Intriguingly, BLACKkKLANSMAN also becomes a deeply intimate story
for Flip as well, who arguably not only has the tougher job of putting his
life on the line to physically go undercover as Ron, but also has to
mentally deal with the anguishing hatred that the KKK has for both blacks
and Jews. Every day he spends
with the KKK is a new mini nightmare, which has him pretending to be the
very epitome of all that he and his people hate as well.
are absolutely key to this film's success, and the dynamic one-two punch
of Washington and Driver make the proceedings so thoroughly intoxicating.
Washington proves here that he's a real chip off of his father's
block and confidently radiates palpable on screen charisma while
simultaneously evoking his character's nagging insecurities and anxieties
about his mission. Driver
arguably gives the most layered performance in the film as his deeply
troubled undercover cop; he has to somehow internalize his own hatred of
the Klan in order to impersonate all of the anti-Jew and Holocaust denying
rhetoric. One of the film's
most chilling scenes involves one deeply unsettled and fanatical Klansman,
Felix (a powerfully vile Jasper Paakkonen), who literally puts a gun to
Flip's head in order to prove his suspicions of him as an undercover
Jewish cop. When the crazed
hothead lashes out at Flip for his views on the Holocaust as fact, he quietly
retorts, "Why would you deny it?
It was a beautiful thing."
You can sense in scenes like this - and many more - how Flip found
himself trapped by the Klan into becoming what he loathed.
His arc is revealing too, especially for how his police work forces
him to come to grips with his own Jewish faith, which was a somewhat
estranged relationship for most of his life, but becomes something he
can't stop thinking of with every new day of his mission.
everything to a supremely potent and thrilling third act, during which
time a massive showdown occurs between Ron, Flip, and the KKK, as the
latter plans a violent hit on some local black activists, and the manner
that Lee drums up Hitchcockian levels of suspense - despite the film being
based on history that's already been established - is noteworthy.
Some of the most serenely disturbing moments in BLACKkKLANSMAN
occur even before this tension filled climax, as we witness Ron subverting
in all of his festering hatred for the Klan while engaging in multiple
phone conversations with Duke, buttering him up and kissing his ass (Grace
in particular is sensationally effective playing the alarming nonchalance
of Duke's stomach churning immorality).
BLACKkKLANSMAN really, really punches viewers in the gut
with his final moments, which shows news footage of the scandalously
recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, which
further shows the real David Duke giving a speech to attendees and reveling
in how President Donald Trump publicly handled the violence that erupted
between Unite the Right marchers and those that protested them.
Remember when Trump idiotically blamed the violence on bad
people on both sides? BLACKkKLANSMAN
ominously ends on title cards that dedicate the film to Heather Heyer, who
was one of the dead victims of the horrible car attack during these
It was at this point when I fully realized that Lee's film was more than just a reality based historical drama and an undercover detective yarn. He's really drawing shocking parallels between Ron's times and our own and how forty years really hasn't changed that much in terms of how minorities are being treated by reprehensible hate groups (Lee ultimately gives a middle finger wag of shame to the Trump administration for turning a blind eye to the sinister events in Charlottesville last year). Lee is using a viewfinder to look at history as a way of echoing modern day social ills that still reverberate now, and how leaders at large like Trump crassly plays down events in Charlottesville to acts of hatred for both the oppressors and their victims (yeah, it's easy to call bull shit on the administration for that). But then there's the larger issue of contemporary cops that still abuse their power and are left unchecked, which regrettably still leads to tremendous strains in their relationship with the African American community.
brilliantly incendiary on many tangents: It shows the hellish conditions
that Ron - and, to be fair, Flip - had to go through in their undercover
work to right serious wrongs. The
film is also a damning indictment on how Hollywood of the past has
fuelled racial hatred for decades (D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF THE NATION is
frequently referenced and shown as a leading catalyst of the Klan's
worldview). Most crucially,
Lee's drama serves as a piece of stinging commentary on what's happening
in the world today, and how race relations progress isn't all that healthy
since Ron's time. BLACKkKLANSMAN
examines the attitudes of the 70s and juxtaposes them with contemporary
views, and the end results are frightening, to say the least.
Lee's approach here may not be subtle, but his propulsive and hard
hitting methodology as a cinematic provocateur just may be the frenzied
needle to the heart of the film world that we need right now.
BLACKkKLANSMAN is not only a terrifically entertaining film with mass appeal (it's Lee's most mainstream and accessible work to date) , but it's also a great and important film.