When Ron Stallworth became the first African American cop to be part of the Colorado Springs Police Department back in the ’70s, he had no idea what was awaiting him or what all he would actually be doing as part of the job. Little did he know he would wind up helping to expose the Ku Klux Klan and — through an amazing turn of events — come to lead its local chapter.
Atlanta-born and Morehouse-educated director Spike Lee has gobbled up this material, drawing from Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, for his new film BlacKkKlansman, opening in area theaters today. It’s breezy entertainment, often quite humorous and in Lee’s wheelhouse, but — true to his nature — the director never shies away from the harder elements of the story or the obvious parallels to today.
At his new position, Ron (John David Washington) is initially stuck pulling records for other officers and dealing with some departmental racism. His arrival has been met with some cynicism and hostility, but he is determined to make a mark. Soon he gets to sink his teeth into something more substantial — he is sent undercover to a Black Panther meeting. There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), who is an activist and the president of her local black student union.
Some time later, Ron notices a recruitment ad in the newspaper for potential Ku Klux Klan members. Ron gives them a call — faking racial sentiments — and they invite him to meet. Obviously he can’t go, so he gets Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pretend to be him. Soon Ron/Flip has done what he needs to do to be a member and get his KKK card. Ron even gets to interact on the phone with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, played by Topher Grace.
Screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee have concocted a fast-paced and crowd-pleasing film. Working with Jordan Peele — who created the Oscar-winning Get Out last year — as one of his producers, Lee has a lot of fun with this material. His most potent films — Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls — have all addressed racial issues in America. And when Lee is pissed off about something, his films definitely show it.
What he has done here is something of a hybrid. It’s an homage to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s. One moment characters even discuss some of the era’s key movies. Yet Lee takes this seriously. The Klan meetings are downright scary, with white robed men vowing to make the country great again, echoing rhetoric that is being said today without the anonymity of Klan hoods.
BlacKkKlansman has its share of suspenseful moments, especially when the KKK members start to figure out that Flip is not who he says he is. If it all seems improbable, it’s not. It all really happened, although Lee and company alter how the saga wraps up.
Ron is played with magnetism to spare by John David Washington, who is Denzel Washington’s son. For all the strife what he is doing causes him, Ron has a high time at making a jackass out of the KKK and his inclusion in their white-only fraternity. Washington and Driver work especially well together, and in the large supporting cast, Grace shines as David Duke. Alec Baldwin also has a notable cameo.
Lee is not always a subtle director — and that can work as an advantage and a disadvantage. The final segments of the film include footage from the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally that took place one year ago. It may feel a little heavy-handed, but it certainly works, especially after seeing all that has preceded it. Fluid and three-dimensional, this is the best Spike Lee film in a long time, pitched at exactly the right moment. Like the new play Woke, it’s a work that needs to be seen and discussed — and savored — at some length afterward.