BlackKklansman is an adaptation of events described in the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by retired Colorado Springs cop Ron Stallworth.
BlackKklansman is the first major motion picture from prolific, award-winning director Spike Lee since 2015’s Greek fantasy-based musical satire Chi-Raq, and is, paradoxically, probably his most mainstream since his highest-grossing ($184.4m), most widely released commercial hit, 2006’s Inside Man (b. $45m). Since its August 24th UK release, the film is already critically acclaimed, having so far taken the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and the Audience Award at the 2018 Locarno International Film Festival.
It’s 1972 (7 years before real events), and Black Power is still cool. Inspired by his military dad, Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel and Pauletta) talks his way past Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and Mayor’s aide Mr Turretine (Isaiah Whitlock Jr) into becoming the first African American in the Colorado Springs Police Department.
As Records Room Officer, Stallworth is met with open hostility and must jump to the demands of officers ‘requesting’ the files of suspects, a lot of whom look like him. Frustrated, Stallworth tries to talk himself into a promotion to undercover detective. He’s laughed out of the office by the Chief until the realisation dawns that he may have a point.
Colorado College Black Student Union (BSU) president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and student activists Odetta (Damaris Lewis) and Hakeem (Ato Blanksom-Wood) are hosting Black Panther Party founder-member Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) at a local nightclub. As an FBI COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) target, he is subjected to extensive surveillance intended to discredit him, and de-stabilise the Black Power movement. Stallworth is sent to blend in with the attendees of the BSU event, reporting to detectives Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).
The operation is a success. But life as a Colorado Springs detective is a little slow. One day, he spots a wanted ad through which he connects with the local Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) over the phone. Breachway’s stealth convinces Stallworth that they are planning something big, which spurs him on to infiltrate the group.
The slightly nebulous plan is to “expose” the sanitization of the Klan into The Organisation and gentrification of its Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) into a National Director with sights set on the Senate and the indoctrination of mainstream white America. Stallworth assures immediate superior Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito), “We can achieve anything with the right white man.” Stallworth will continue verbal infiltration by phone, hopefully befriending Duke himself, whilst Zimmerman deals with any personal appearances with Breachway’s team, including the always-armed drunk and slightly slow Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), highly strung, dissatisfied agitator Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) and his frumpy, passive-aggressive, true-believer wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson).
Pulling off an official KKK membership becomes central to the investigation, and the Stallworth-Zimmerman fledgling bromance falters over some reluctant existential soul-searching. The complications of an undercover cop / civil activist romance threatens to converge on a collision course, whilst Stallworth finds himself with an unthinkable incidental assignment.
BlackKklansman is an enjoyable, good looking, period movie which makes black people look fabulous and some of our foibles charming. Lee coaxed great performances from his cast to create a believable ensemble. Particular praise goes to Washington, a charismatic leading man who is easy to root for, has great comic timing, the gravitas to sell the drama and the physicality to sell the action. Adam Driver managed to be appealing, funny and a little vulnerable. Harrier did well with the role of love interest Patrice Dumas, but the character left me slightly underwhelmed. Mr. Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner delivers a wonderfully bittersweet scene speaking of supremacist atrocities to a group of appalled, spell-bound youngsters.
The film is, as ever, beautifully scored by Terence Blanchard and is punctuated with a selection of soul classics*, and the late, great Prince sings a gorgeous spiritual over the closing credits. There is a sense of duality about the production, starting with the title itself and the ingenious incorporation of the KKK acronym, and use of the pointedly black and white Star Spangled Banner in the posters. Both promise the contrary juxtapositions in language and imagery which follow. Fictional character Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) delivers a movie-opening monologue set against a cine projection of Gone With the Wind (GWTW), itself a fictionalised account of the American Civil War. As Beauregard stumbles through his hate-filled, truth-challenged rhetoric, intended as a public service announcement, Lee plays with the colour, sometimes bleeding it away so that Beauregard as reality and GWTW as fantasy, blend, setting the tone.
BlackKklansman has an appealing rhythm of observational, slapstick, satirical and ironic comedic elements, which lends it a certain authentic biographical feel. Approaching it as a comedy might make it work a little better for you. Because, even though Lee and his co-writers Kevin “Chi-Raq” Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz utilised the freedom the real Stallworth gave them to deviate from the events in his source material, their desire to use his story as an allegory for the political struggles in Trump’s USA results in ample use of tongue-in-cheek references to present-day Trump quotes and occasional ever-so-slightly heavy-handed ‘coincidences’ to drive it. You might, therefore, feel a little manipulated into seeing a film sold as ‘black detective infiltrates KKK’, but is actually a commentary on Trump and the re-birth of white supremacist extremism – worthy, but not the same film.
You will read criticisms of the factual divergences. But, we can accept that this is neither a documentary nor a docu-drama.
Still, historical accuracy aside, aspects of the story feel strangely uneven and incongruous. For example, Stallworth sounds like a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) through most of the time, even when supposedly talking Jive (in which he says he’s fluent) and, even more weirdly, when he’s trying to get Zimmerman to sound like him. This story also tells us very little about the man. Like our John Luther (Idris Elba), cinematic Stallworth was raised in the city he works in, but apparently has no family or other black friends. We get no sense of him before arriving for his interview. Juxtaposing the Ture/Carmichael thread with the main KKK story line only seems to highlight Stallworth’s lack of investment in ‘The Struggle’. Even as he professes that he cares about ‘his people’ the whole KKK investigation feels driven by job satisfaction/career advancement, and ends up feeling centred on one person, rather than the greater good. It leads to one big show of social conscience, cheered on largely by a bunch of white cops.
The “with the right white man… we can do anything” line was particularly problematic for me. If there was any sarcasm or even irony in the delivery, I couldn’t hear it, which made it jar in the context of this film, not least because they chose precisely the wrong white man! Driver’s fictional Zimmerman is the opposite of ‘Aryan good looks’ with his dark hair, generous nose and Star of David pendant. He is quite rightly viewed with suspicion by the KKK faction, but only by a single member! He wouldn’t have seemed like such a plot device, but for the fact that his partner Creek (Buscemi) actually fits the physical KKK requirement so much more! It was a convenient way to enmesh the Jewish and African struggles, mirroring the supremacists themselves. It also seemed strange that the wanted ad clearly states “Ku Klux Klan“, but then thereafter, the name The Organisation is strictly enforced! Likewise, the late pivotal role given to the obviously dark-skinned ex-con Walker (Nicholas Turturro) simply rang false.
So, all told, BlackKklansman isn’t quite the counter-narrative we might expect from Spike Lee. It’s big and glossy, like Inside Man, and enjoyable if you squint a little. But, you may be left a little perplexed, made worse by the closing footage of the present-day legacies of both the Civil Rights and KKK movements, which ends with a commemoration of the tragic, senseless death of a young, white woman.
But, it will be another commercial success for Lee, because white audiences will feel it is more accessible than much of his past work. Interesting then, that, at one point, the white Sergeant Trapp says, “For a black man, you’re pretty naive.”
*Check out The Music of Spike Lee & Terence Banchard (2016) on Now TV.