By Leslie C. Halpern
Easily one of Spike Lee’s most entertaining and accessible films, BlacKkKlansman depicts a true story from more than 40 years ago that’s still relevant today.
Based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, this film focuses on his time as a rookie cop with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s as its first African-American officer. Young, ambitious, and college-educated, Stallworth (John David Washington) despises his assignment in the records room and longs to be a detective. To his delight, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) soon promotes him to work undercover when a former Black Panther speaks at a local college.
Plan to Infiltrate the KKK
Stallworth immediately forms a bond with the attractive student union organizer (Laura Harrier) and uses her to gain more information about the speaker’s possible threat to the community. His subterfuge and their romance become important subplots that tie in with the main storyline, which is Ron’s bold plan to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan organization by using a white undercover officer (Adam Driver as a Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman) to physically represent him, while he manipulates local Klansmen and even Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the telephone.
After being threatened at gunpoint by a Klansman, Flip has had enough. He angrily tells Ron: “To you it’s a crusade, for me it’s a job.” As the case continues, however, it becomes less of a job for Flip and less of a crusade for Ron until the two meet somewhere in the middle. Unexpected humor weaves its way throughout the film, as does the theme of parallel marginalization of and prejudice against African-Americans and Jews.
Lee does an excellent job building suspense as the black/white, police/civilian tensions come to a climax. One particularly effective example comes near the end of the film as scenes compare and contrast Klansman watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation at a rally, and black students listening to a guest speaker (Harry Belafonte) describing a lynch mob’s horrific torture and murder of a mentally disabled black man accused of a heinous crime against a white woman.
The film’s most powerful moments are in the actual storytelling (based on Stallworth’s book) and the fine performances by Washington, Driver, and Grace. Lee takes the morality lesson too far with a hate-filled introduction by Alec Baldwin portraying an actor in a propaganda film and a clip from Gone With the Wind depicting the aftermath of war, and ending the movie with disturbing news footage from 2017 about race riots and white supremacy marches across the United States. The message in Ron Stallworth’s story is loud and clear without these unnecessary directorial flourishes.
- Based on a true story, the first African-American police detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department leads an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
- Stars: Adam Driver, John David Washington, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser
- Director: Spike Lee
- Genre: Biography/Crime
- Run Time: 125 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, including racist epithets, disturbing material/violent material and some sexual references)
- Watch the trailer for BlacKkKlansman.