Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz
Biography/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Who would have thought a black man could go “undercover” and infiltrate the KKK?
In the movies, anything’s possible, Greg. The fact that this happened in real life makes this story truly amazing. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who is applying as the first black man to join the Colorado Springs police force. He’s quickly dispatched to the basement records department. Stallworth quickly tires of this assignment and is transferred to undercover where he goes undercover to observe a Black Panther rally where Kwame Ture is speaking. He befriends the leader of the college’s student union Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). His work on that case was recognized by the intelligence division and he’s reassigned to do undercover work for the narcotics division.
One day Stallworth sees a KKK recruitment ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper. He decides to call the KKK to express an interest in joining the group. The head of the chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), invites Stallworth to meet him in person. Stallworth realizes that his skin color makes such a meeting problematic, and so he asks a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pretend to be Stallworth. Flip learns of the Klan’s plot to plant a bomb at one of Kwame Ture’s rallies.
Scott, there is good and bad on both sides of this film. That is to say, the good part is that this is an amazing true story of how a black man infiltrated an organization looking to subjugate and ultimately eliminate an entire race of people. The bad part is that the storytelling is uneven and at times very on-the-nose with no attempt at subtext.
We see the racism in the Colorado Springs police department when Stallworth is in the records room basement. But once he is moved into narcotics, he appears to accepted as an equal by everyone in the room. There appears to be no resistance to him being the only black man in the department. This lack of friction makes the story feel unrealistic. Likewise, at the higher levels, there is one “bad cop” who taunts Stallworth and is eventually exposed as profiling and sexually abusing black women at traffic stops. This “token” also seems extreme. Director Spike Lee seems to give Stallworth’s friends a Mary Sue complex and his rare detractors “evil villain” status.
I can understand why Lee might have gone in this direction. His goal is to tell the story of how a black man outsmarted the KKK and to shine a bright light on how things haven’t changed much in 40 years. So, he doesn’t want to muddy the waters with how hard it was to be a black man in the Colorado Springs police department and focus on the story at hand.
Still, scenes like the one where Stallworth is arguing with his sergeant over whether David Duke (Topher Grace, leader of the KKK) could ever become president seem concocted to allude to the current administration. The scene is so on the nose that it doesn’t seem realistic. It’s at times like this that story borders on propaganda rather than storytelling.
I emphasize these failings because I am very much in favor of this story being shared. Stallworth’s story reminds us that racism in America is not dead or even dormant. There was a time when white supremacists would wear hoods to hide their identity. But today they boldly walk in parades by the hundreds carrying torches baring their faces to national news camera.
But when a filmmaker steps away from storytelling to moralizing he starts to walk down a path where emotional manipulation (which virtually all storytelling is) is used to further a political agenda. And that is propaganda. Spike Lee begins to walk along the fringes with those on the right like Dinesh D’souza whose movies are blatant propaganda against the liberal left. I think the message would have been stronger if Spike Lee had left the conclusions to us.
Very well said, Greg. I noticed the same “on the nose” quality that you did, but when a story is true, and when a story is desperately in need of being told given the current zeitgeist, I’m willing to overlook an occasional deviation from good or proper storytelling.
Watching BlacKkKlansman is sobering yet somehow also uplifting. The sobering aspect, of course, stems from the ugliness of racism, a blight on humanity that shouldn’t even exist in the year 2018. Yet somehow it persists. BlacKkKlansman is uplifting because we need to recognize it as a fabulous piece of art. Spike Lee has reached another creative pinnacle in his already storied career.
Overall, BlacKkKlansman is a true tour-de-force, a powerful film examining the pitiful spectacle of hate and its horrific consequences for the haters and especially for the targets of hate. This movie is a must-see and will have historical significance for decades to come.
This movie is listed as a comedy, but this is clearly a searing look at a very dark topic. The only comic moment occurs when Ron Stallworth inadvertently uses his own name when contacting the Klan, setting up the need for his partner Flip Zimmerman to pretend to be Stallworth. There is also the obvious irony of Stallworth infiltrating two opposing groups: a Black civil rights group with its goal of equality, and the Klan with its goal to destroying groups of people. This film drives home the point: Shouldn’t it have been obvious in the 1970s who the true bad guys were? Shouldn’t it still be obvious today?
Spike Lee makes a bold artistic choice at the end of the film when there appears to be a happy ending with the foiling of the KKK’s plot and David Duke being humiliated. But then there is an abrupt cut to the 2017 Charlottesville race riots, the murder of Heather Heyer, and Donald Trump’s support of David Duke. This, for me, was a necessary jolt to our system; otherwise we’re left with a “happy ending” that simply doesn’t exist — yet. The film’s conclusion was tough to watch, very sobering, and very necessary.
I totally agree, Scott. Spike Lee is a master craftsman. The scene where a crowd of black men and women are in rapt attention when Kwame Ture is speaking is both beautiful and moving. Despite my concerns about Lee’s flirtation with propaganda, this is a film that everyone should see. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.
Ron Stallworth ranks very high on the hero scale. In fact, he’s compared in the movie to Jackie Robinson (the subject of the movie 42). And I think it’s an apt comparison. Like Robinson, Stallworth had the unenviable job of walking into an all-white organization and “turning the other cheek” while taking abuse from both inside and outside the department. Stallworth exhibits the qualities of intelligence, competence, and strength and morality that we look for in our heroes. Also, at a time when the public and the police seem to be at odds, Stallworth and his coworkers remind us that the police are still heroes in our culture. I give Stallworth and his team 5 out of 5 Heroes.
Archetypes abound in this film. The RACIST KLANSMAN is prevalent. The CORRUPT BOSS is evident in Stallman’s chief of police. I give these archetypes 3 out of 5 Arcs.
BlacKkKlansman is one of the best films of 2018 and is likely to be nominated for several awards this coming Oscar season. Spike Lee treats us to the telling of a great true story with profound social relevance. I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout the two-hour duration of the film. The powerful Charlottesville ending left my eyes tearing up and my stomach churning. For me the movie earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.
Stallworth is one of the strongest heroes in the movies in 2018, a true pioneer in law enforcement in Colorado and a societal game-changer. He and Zimmerman made a great pairing and delivered justice where it needed to be delivered. Everyone transforms in this film, with lives being forever damaged and rearranged – for good and for ill. Like you, Greg, I’ll award Stallworth the full 5 Hero points out of 5.
Regarding archetypes, we have David Duke serving as the evil mastermind, tending to the puppet strings attached to all his evil henchmen and evil minions. With Zimmerman we have the double-agent, and with Stallworth we have the outcast. We also encounter the perennial archetypal battle of good versus evil. I’ll give these archetypes 4 Arcs out of 5.