The best movie of the week, possibly the month, and certainly one of the best of the year is the latest from master cinematic provocateur Spike Lee, who gives us the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s gifted son and veteran of the HBO series “Ballers”). Stallworth was a Colorado Springs police officer, circa the early 1970s, who was hired as the first black officer in the area to infiltrate the rising black radical movement within the local college campus. Produced by, among others, Jordan Peele (Get Out), BlacKkKlansman is a film about how racial issues are treated almost comically different, depending on the region of the country in which you happen to be.
While Stallworth did, in fact, infiltrate the local Black Power movement, first by attending an impassioned speech by visiting lecturer Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), whose speech we get to see more or less in its entirety. Listen to it carefully, because the themes and issues at stake in the movie are perfectly laid out in that 10 minutes, and powerful words are spoken. It doesn’t take long for Stallworth to discover that there’s a local branch of the KKK operating in and around Colorado Springs, and almost without thinking, he makes a quick phone call to the local leader to get more information about joining and setting up a meeting for a few local members.
While it’s clear that Lee is having too much fun taking jabs at how stupid the Klansmen were to allow a black man into their ranks in an effort to see if any homegrown terrorist activities were in the works, it also seems evident that he is undeniably angry that white supremacist groups like the one in this film are still active and even thriving under our current administration. Using still-impactful footage from the violent Charlottesville, Virginia, marches where a man drove his car down a street packed with people (which happened exactly one year ago), Lee is demanding that definitive statements be made by the current leadership against hate groups, which I’m guessing he knows will never happen.
Since Stallworth can’t exactly show up to a Klan rally, he enlists the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who happens to be Jewish but seems less affected by the things he’s investigating. Some of the film’s best moments come when the two men work out both strategy and matching voices. When Stallworth questions Zimmerman’s outrage at what he’s seeing and hearing, Flip says that this isn’t a crusade for him the way it is for Stallworth, who then asks why it isn’t.
The inner struggle is as much at play in BlacKkKlansman as the more blatant one to end racism. I forget what black comedian once made the joke about his preferring the Klan’s brand of racism because it’s out in the open, versus more institutionalized versions of it where the perpetrators smile as they’re stabbing you in the back. Stallworth has to deal with both kinds in his story; there are many fellow officers who don’t believe he should be on the force at all and have no issues letting him know as much.
The supporting players in BlacKkKlansman are quite impressive, including Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Patrice Dumas, a leader of the Black Power movement that Stallworth infiltrates, who ends up becoming his girlfriend; Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges, the head of Stallworth’s department who is keeping close tabs on the team’s progress; Michael Buscemi, who plays Zimmerman’s partner Jimmy Creek; and most interestingly, Topher Grace as Stallworth’s primary contact at the national level of the KKK, then-Grand Wizard David Duke.
Their conversations (always on the phone) are pure magic, as Stallworth weaves a friendship out of shared beliefs about white superiority and despising all non-white races. Lee knows that there is something unflinchingly gripping about having a black man spew hate speech about African-Americans, even though we know he’s simply playing a role. Driver is equally compelling and convincing when he needs to be, but as his desire to take down the Klan grows and his stake in the investigation becomes more personal, the film’s intensity not only grows, but becomes searing.
BlacKkKlansman is a story of bravery, audaciousness, hypocrisy, and history—all pulled together in something that feels horribly, inescapably current.