Warning: Review Contains Some Spoilers
More than any other filmmaker I can think of Spike Lee is a guy you want to see tackle as many issues as possible to the point where his filmography becomes a sort of unified exploration of every debate about the black experience in America (along with some side conversations about New York). He’s often talked about as a filmmaker who rails against white racism, and that’s certainly something he does, but if you just look at his first six movies and you’ll see statements about historically black universities (School Daze), jazz (Mo Better Blues), interracial relationships (Jungle Fever), and drug use (Jungle Fever again) alongside movies about more conventional race relations both in the past (Malcolm X) and in contemporary times (Do the Right Thing). One aspect of American racial strife that he has not up to now spent a lot of time looking into up to now are the actions of organized hate groups of the neo-nazi and Ku Klux Klan variety. His reasons for not focusing on groups like this are many. For one thing, these groups have often been seen as something of an easy target. They were viewed as a small group of extremists that the intellectual whites who go to Spike Lee movies aren’t going to see a lot of themselves in. Additionally movies about hate groups like American History X and This is England tend to be in the rather queasy position of being movies told largely from the perspective of white people about an issue that ultimately causes a lot of black pain. Of course in the era of Trump these groups are as relevant as ever and far more powerful than they’ve been in decades and Lee has found the perfect solution for telling the story of an all-white group from a black perspective through the true story told in his new movie Blackkklansman.
The film is set in the 70s and begins with a young black man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the Colorado Springs Police Department as their first black officer. Officially his hiring is applauded and encouraged by the department but it’s never quite clear where the police chief (Robert John Burke) stands and he occasionally needs to deal with sneers from other officers. Stallworth is not exactly a black power rebel however, despite his rather large afro, and even volunteers to go undercover at a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets a woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is very decidedly “down with the cause.” With that assignment complete Stallworth is given a more permanent position as an undercover narcotics cop. While in that assignment Stallworth comes up with the idea of using these same undercover tactics to go after the Ku Klux Klan after he sees a recruitment ad for them in the newspaper. Stallworth calls the number in the ad and begins to infiltrate them over the phone and then convinces his superiors to hatch an undercover operation in which a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will assume the cover and meet them in person to find out if they’re hatching any plots.
Ron Stallworth is a bit of a curious character to put at the center of a film like this. He, like the real police officer he’s based on, is a black man who is more or less proud of his association with the police department and shows a degree of ambivalence about the black power movement and is even willing to wear a wire to the Ture speech even if only to advance his career. The movie does not, however, dismiss Stallworth as some sort of “Uncle Tom.” Stallworth proudly wears a large afro (a decision that I doubt Lee made casually), he fights back in his own ways against fellow officers who are abusive or racist, and of course he spends most of the movie trying to bring down the Klan. His girlfriend in the film is in some ways supposed to stand in as a voice for a more radical approach to the issues in the film and she occasionally sort of acts as his conscience as a black man, though I must say that she at times feels a bit too much like a symbol for certain themes rather than a true character and her relationship with Stallworth occasionally feels like a setup for one of those clichéd rom-com “you lied to me!” twists in the second act.
The undercover operation in the film is a bit odd. The plan in the film is to have Stallworth talk on the phone with the KKK members and set up meetings and for Zimmerman then show up in person. I’ve looked up the fact checking articles and this does appear to be how the operation was conducted in real life but it still isn’t clear to me why. Would it not be easier to just have Zimmerman maintain his cover both on the phone and in the field? Wouldn’t that ensure that the voices match and that the two would never find themselves contradicting each other? In the long run this is probably a quibble that just needs to be set aside, especially given that it’s apparently accurate and it goes to the whole “black klansman” concept, but it was still a bit odd. Much of the investigation into this local branch of the klan is disturbing as you might expect but also comical in how stupid these guys seem to be. The main white klansman we spend time with sort of represent different strains of hatred: there’s a guy who seems to be just filled with uncontrolled rage, another guy who seems to blame others for his failures in life, and one guy who’s just stupid to the point where you half expect him to forget to breathe.
The fact that this is set in the 70s is also a bit curious as that was probably the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its absolute lowest point. It had already lost the civil rights clashes of the 60s and hadn’t yet reinvented itself through the use of the internet yet or found a sympathetic president either. We do get introduced to David Duke who is played here by Topher Grace and comes off as a kind of Ned Flanders from hell. Today Duke is a well-known boogieman whose name is supposed to be synonymous with the worst kinds of racism but the movie explains that his ultimate goal was to make hatred mainstream through politics and to replace cross burnings with rhetoric about “white rights” and the like. Here though that is not explored too deeply as the klan members we spend most of the time with are rednecks who do not seem to have gotten the memo about dog whistling. Instead the film ends with them engaging in a pretty traditional KKK hate crime and with our heroes chasing them down to stop them in a finale that cleverly mirrors D.W. Griffith’s infamous classic The Birth of a Nation but which also feels rushed and a bit too easy. In the true story this was based on there was no bombing incident that the police could easily stop and arrest people for. The film’s final shot before its postscript does at least acknowledge that hate can’t be so easily stamped out but there are still places here where this feels like a slightly more conventional thriller that’s been seasoned by Spike Lee rather than the undiluted goods.
Overall though I think Blackkklansman is a pretty good romp even if it’s a bit messy around the edges and isn’t quite able to tie up all its loose ends by the end. In some ways I do think seeing the Spike Lee name on it and viewing the film within his body of work helps the movie. The film finds a solid means of exploring some really rough territory in a way that feels accessible, almost fun in a way, and manages to connect it to some of the more disturbing aspects of our modern times. It’s hard not to like that even if I think there are an abundance of rough edges that Lee maybe didn’t have the time to sand out in his rush to get the product out in time.
**** out of Five