OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
“BlacKkKlansman” is a movie about a rookie cop named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who, after a boring assignment in the filing room, makes an ambitious call to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, it is worth mentioning that Ron is a black man, and given that it is 1979, the very first black police officer in his home of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Ron calls the KKK and feigns a racist white alter ego, albeit using his own name. The KKK takes the bait and gives Ron an opportunity to head an undercover operation to infiltrate the infamous terrorist hate group. Since Ron is black, a white cop of Jewish descent named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent in his place to actually meet the Colorado Springs KKK members. The amazing part of this storyline is that it is entirely based in fact, and could easily have been made into a fascinating documentary. However, this is a movie by Spike Lee, a director known for his creativity and often-intense racial messages, so the story does not stop with just the facts to achieve its goals.
Before Ron’s KKK call, he is first sent by his gruff Chief Officer (John Robert Burke) to spy on a rally held by the Colorado College Black Student Union, featuring Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) whom the white officers insist on calling Stokely Carmichael (his former name). It is at this rally that Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) a beautiful young woman who also happens to be the leader of the Black Student Union. Non-coincidentally, she also happens to despise cops, or as she insists on calling them, “pigs”. Despite Ron having to lie to Patrice, there is undeniable chemistry between the two, and their relationship is a key aspect of the story. On the one hand, we have Ron who is a black man working within a completely white, and often prejudiced police department. And on the other, a young black woman bent on breaking a system she views as entirely calculated and oppressive toward her people.
As Ron and Flip work in tandem to penetrate the KKK, the stakes rise as each man encounters threats from the violent group. One member in particular, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), proves to be especially mercurial and dangerous. It is fair to say that Spike Lee’s KKK, just like the real KKK, does not stand a chance of actually outsmarting anybody. However, just as a rabid dog might be stupid, it does not make it any less hazardous. While Zimmerman works to gain the trust of the KKK in person, Ron continues to talk on the phone with different members. And, in an effort to get his official membership approved, Ron chances to speak to “the Grand Wizard” David Duke (Topher Grace) when calling the head office of the Klan. Ron, in his alter ego, becomes quite friendly with Duke over the phone, leading to some of the most comic bits of the movie.
While “BlacKkKlansman” is in many ways a comedy, the overall tone of the movie takes on a particularly dark tone at the end. This shock ending made many headlines, which many of you have probably seen, and serves as a kind of vindication for Lee’s more consequential comparisons to modern day America throughout the film. And while the ending of the film is certainly alarming, and perhaps brings some legitimacy to Lee’s boldest comparisons, it skirts the central struggle at the heart the movie. The meatiest part of the story is less about a group of moronic KKK members and their racist views than it is about a historic and ongoing discussion regarding the Black Power movement. Do you create change within the current system, through integration and assimilation? Or do you band together to create a new system based on independence and resistance? Is your mantra “I Have a Dream” or is it “The Ballot or the Bullet”? These alternative strategies are far more complex than my summations, but in “BlacKkKlansman” we can see them play out between Ron and Patrice. At the end of the film, the two cautiously march toward an apartment window, guns drawn, where they see a cross burning in the distance. Ron’s mission is to combat these people and their ideas through his work in a flawed police force, while Patrice wants to condemn the entire system and work toward a separate strategy based in Black Nationalism. The film does not champion either approach, but rather leaves it up to the viewer to internally debate.
Ultimately, “BlacKkKlansman” is a well-directed and entertaining film based on a stranger-than-fiction true story about a black man infiltrating the KKK. John David Washington is delightful as the lead character, with a wry sense of humor that wins over the audience immediately. However, despite succeeding as pure entertainment, I am hesitant to heap equal praise on the film as an effective political message. I doubt that any modern Americans at whom Lee is aiming his sharpest criticisms will actually see the movie, so in a sense “BlacKkKlansman” is preaching to the choir. A film like “Get Out”, with its far subtler but equally damning message is a good example of how a director might actually infiltrate his dissenters.