BLACKKKLANSMAN is the real-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black detective working in the very white police department of Colorado Springs in the early 1970s. He is a man who wants to get ahead in his job, but is viewed with suspicion by his fellow employees and endures a range of mistreatment from some of the white officers. The fact that the area has its first African-American policeman is something that certain people find intolerable.
Right off the bat, Stallworth is sent to a meeting of the black students’ union at the local college where civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is speaking. The local police are concerned the event will stir-up trouble. What Stallworth finds is a group of young people witnessing a stirring Black Power speech. He personally connects with the words he hears, which is somewhat at odds with his mission to find evidence of politically subversive activities. He meets and is attracted to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a politically committed student. They have an uneasy relationship.
Stallworth, preferring to uncover evidence of white supremacist activity in the region, decides to contact Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). He reaches out to him via a telephone conversation. Pretending to be a disgruntled white man and code-switching his speech to really sell the impersonation, he successfully persuades Duke that the two of them are on the same wavelength. Stallworth engages in this ruse many times in the hope that he will uncover illegal Klan activity. When Duke decides that this potential telephone ally needs to meet the local Klan chapter in person, Stallworth has to change tactics. He arranges for fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the “white” Ron Stallworth. From this point onward, Zimmerman, an experienced undercover cop, is involved in a number of dangerous incidents as the investigation into the local Klan proceeds.
Director Spike Lee broke ground cinematically and culturally with films such as SHE’S GOT TO HAVE IT (1986), DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), MALCOLM X (1992) and WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (2006). In addition to his features, he has produced a significant number of award-winning television series and documentaries. BLACKKKLANSMAN is something of a return to form for Lee, movie-wise. The timing of this offering is apt. At a moment when American society is going through major racial upheaval yet again, this movie makes a link between recent history and current events.
Lee uses D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), a sequence from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and the Tarzan movie serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s as a media context to show the depth and pervasiveness of racism and white supremacist attitudes. This material underlines, rather than undermines, the tale of the police investigation. The tone of the movie, as it depicts Stallworth and Zimmerman’s activities, is uneven. There are comic moments, intense action-based sequences and jarringly missed opportunities. The conclusion, using a montage of American news and documentary footage, reflects recent events in a breathtakingly emotional way. Lee has very consciously fashioned an entertaining film that becomes a bold statement against a return to the ideas and attitudes of the nation’s past. There are very few filmmakers who would make a movie for a general audience and create such an unexpected and powerful finale.
Duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes. Rating: (8/10)