A true-life story told in a exaggerated way, BlacKkKlansman is certainly Spike Lee’s most flat-out entertaining film in quite a long time, as well as his most commercial. Telling the tall tale of a rookie Colorado Springs cop who, in cahoots with a Jewish member of the force, successfully infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, the director takes the shenanigans to almost cartoonish levels of humor at times but makes sure to hit home with countless examples of cultural and political racism, some of which have been surmounted but many of which still afflict the nation today. After its world premiere in Cannes, this Focus Features release will generate plenty of coverage and looks to be an audience pleaser set for a late summer release.
It’s been a while, since around the mid- to late-1990s, that Lee’s work was felt to be in the vanguard of serious and widely seen films about race issues in the U.S., even as he has continued to make smaller films that addressed diverse political matters in pointed ways. Although it is set in the early 1970s, this film should change that, as Lee doesn’t hesitate to draw direct lines from the more institutional racism of nearly a half-century ago to Charlottesville and other recent events, while for good measure again dredging up the racism in such old classics as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Lee’s got a full barrel of ammo and clearly he intends to use it.
After a faux newsreel in which Alec Baldwin as a racialist leader spews a white supremacist harangue about our descent into a mongrel nation, we witness the integration of the Colorado Springs police force with the arrival of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, of TV’s Ballers), an Afro-sporting college grad who quickly asserts his interest in undercover work.
Despite the resentment of some racist elements on the force, Ron’s wish is granted sooner rather than later when he’s assigned to cover and surreptitiously record a local speech given by former Black Panther leader/African nationalist Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins, doing a fine oration that runs to considerable and powerful length). That night, Ron also makes nice with the event’s organizer, Colorado State Black Student Union leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), whose Afro is about three times larger than his. If she knew he was wearing a wire that evening, she’d kick his butt straight out of town, but instead it’s the beginning of a slow courtship.
Mere luck opens the door to Ron’s entrée to the KKK. Responding to an ad, Ron, who jokes that he can speak stereotypically white or black, asks for material from the local chapter but is then asked to come in for a personal meeting. That’s not going to happen for the obvious reason, so to further the inquiry, fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) volunteers to pose as Ron for the face-to-face encounter.
The guys synch up their speaking styles and they’re off to the races, so to speak. Lee tries to restrain himself in his presentation of the KKK members, but he really can’t resist making them look like the biggest fools in tarnation. After some exposure to Flip, local chapter frontman Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) is suspicious of him and tries to force him into a lie detector test because he’s (rightly) convinced Flip is Jewish. But, because the Klan members are such dopes and are rightly impressed by former soldier Flip’s marksmanship, “Ron” is quickly invited to become a member, which eventually leads to interactions with national KKK boss David Duke (Topher Grace).
Through this middle section, the close calls for “Ron,” and especially Flip, who has to convincingly interrelate with the Klan members on a regular basis, are never-ending. Flip has to hang out with the guys at their local pool hall, spew racist drivel with regularity to keep his act convincing, find further members for the small group and survive the feeling of some that this newcomer “asks too many questions.”
Much of the comic relief through this mid-section comes from a fat, drunken and just cluelessly stupid young man called Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser); he looks like he just walked out of the supporting cast of I, Tonya. Then there is slender Felix’s plus-sized wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who selflessly caters to her husband while breathlessly awaiting her chance to perform a valiant deed on behalf of the almightly Klan.
Lee crosses the line between seriousness and near-slapstick countless times as he sinks his teeth into this ripe opportunity to chew on and spit out the KKK and all it stands for once and for all. Keeping it all credible is another issue, and one can feel the sometimes wobbly tone and credulity-straining contributions of the four screenwriters crashing into one another as Lee attempts to establish a consistency while continuing to fire his broadsides again the Klan specifically and racial injustice generally.
The section that feels least convincing, perhaps partly because it receives the least screen time, is the romance between Ron and Patrice; it’s easy to see why he’s into her, but not the other way around. From the outset, he seems too straight-laced, mild-mannered and middle-of-the-road for this gorgeous radical, and not a moment is given over to the presumed sexual relationship between them. Performances for the good guys are generally pitched to moderately realistic levels but are set higher and more obvious for the bad guys.
“Ron” eventually develops a personal phone relationship with Duke, who agrees to come to Colorado for the official membership ceremony for new members. This ends in a shambles for the Klan but is not without serious, even possibly deadly consequences, which Lee uses as the opening notes of what comes to feel like the thunderous symphonic finale, into which he stuffs a Harry Belafonte lecture about a dreadful lynching, The Birth of a Nation, Charlottesville and other Trump-era violence and an honest-to-God cross-burning ceremony. He doesn’t miss a trick.
Maybe less would have been more, but maybe not. In any event, what Ron Stallworth and his buddy Flip (whose life was actually more endangered than that of his partner in deception) pulled off was something of a big, ballsy dare more than something heroic. Lee and his writers have thrown as many logs on the fire as they’ve been able to find to signal the persistence of racial injustice; they have also endeavored, and mostly succeeded, to entertain.
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, Perfect World Pictures, QC Entertainment
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Charlie Wachtel, David Rubinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, based on the book by Ron Stallworth
Producers: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick
Executive producers: Marcel A. Brown, Edward H. Hamm Jr.
Director of photography: Chayse Irvin
Production designer: Curt Beach
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Terence Blanchard
Casting: Kim Coleman