What do you do when you’re a Black person trying to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK?
If you’re a Black person being asked this question, your immediate response should be “no thanks,” for obvious reasons. But if you spend the time thinking through the frankly ridiculous ask for the sake of the exercise, you could imagine that it would take detailed planning and a gracefulness needed to pull it off. After all, that’s the premise of the based-on-true-events BlacKkKlansman.
Luckily for new Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), he was able to succeed with none of that in his arsenal. As for the Spike Lee-directed film based on his 2014 book however, gracefulness would have gone far to reduce the heavy-handedness of this film’s message. It’s a spirited film, but also a clumsy one.
Set in the early 1970s, Stallworth is the first Black detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth sets out to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. He then recruits his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation by playing the “body” of the white-version of Ron while Ron plays the “voice.”
The whole experience may seem beyond logic, especially when hearing how Flip and Ron’s voices do not match at all. Even the investigation itself begins sloppily: Ron accidentally uses his real name instead of an alias when speaking to a member of the Klan. The real life Ron Stallsworth chalks up his fortune to investigating people that “weren’t the brightest bulbs in the socket.” The dimwittedness of “the organization” (how they refer to themselves) is played up for dramatic effect, but maybe it’s not so dramatized? And in an era where technology is limited to aid in operations, the story does feel more plausible.
This absurd story works well under the “Spike Lee Joint” umbrella. As a director, Lee is known to subvert reality in his films and provide fantastical elements to otherwise realistic moments. It’s more toned down than previous works (sorry, you won’t get a random “Raspberry Beret” dance sequence), but they makes appearances. You see it when Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier) talk about their favorite Blaxploitation films and the films posters pop up in the middle of the screen. You hear it while Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is speaking at Colorado Springs BSU event, and an audience member yells BOOM SHAKALAKA multiple times. Whether deliberate or not, it serves as a reminder that this journey is going to be odd. Lee’s claim to fame is his artistic license – and he doesn’t spare any license in this film.
Unfortunately, that tendency also makes the story’s message feel forced at times. It’s no secret that Lee is anti-Trump. It’s also no secret that the same David Duke (played by Topher Grace) that Ron “befriends” on the phone is the same one who endorsed Trump during the 2016 Election. Make no mistake: the KKK is still alive, still viable and still present in our society and our politics. The script works hard to make that connection between the 1970’s and the events of today, but there’s a clumsiness to it that doesn’t quite work.
When Stallworth and Sergeant Trapp discuss the investigation, one of them mentions that a member of the Klan would never be the President. At some point, David Duke says verbatim: “for America to achieve its…greatness again.” Whether it’s the actor’s choice to deliver these lines a certain way or Lee’s direction for that delivery, these are moments where you practically expect them to break the fourth wall and stare directly at the camera, Jim-from-The Office style. The lack of subtlety drops you out of the journey, and feels like a vehicle for Lee to express his anger toward the government and Trump rather than tell an otherwise fascinating story. This is further confirmed at the end of the film, where we get direct callbacks from the ’70s Klan to the 2017 Klan via the Charlottesville rally.
Perhaps the subtleness wasn’t considered in an effort to make this story more universal in its reach. Writing as a Black critic and viewer, the film is enjoyable, but there’s nothing groundbreaking in connecting the racism in 1970s to the racism presently. But to a broader (read: whiter) audience, the groundwork this film does to establish where Trump’s rhetoric come from from may be necessary. This sacrifices how deep the story could have gone in the era in which it’s based. Finding that common ground between the past and the present is critical to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes. But it’s equally critical to explore that past and give it its proper time.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10