Legendary director Spike Lee brings retired detective Ron Stallworth’s memoir to life in his piercing new film BlacKkKlansman. An engrossing adaption of Stallworth’s induction as the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, the film follows his first year on the force where Stallworth would find himself entangled in a case that would help humiliate the Ku Klux Klan.
Set in the late ’70s at the height of the Black Power movement, BlacKkKlansman centers on the young and ambitious Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington), who refuses to be shoved in the evidence room, a black token in an endless sea of white faces. When Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael (portrayed by Corey Hawkins) visits Colorado Springs, Ron jumps at the chance to infiltrate the crowd and report back to his supervisor about black activism in the city. What he doesn’t expect is to befriend Patrice Dumas (portrayed by Laura Harrier), the leader of the local college’s Black Student Union. Though Ron is intent on working within the system to make a change, Patrice uses more “radical” approaches to combat racism, white supremacy and injustices even when it means literally putting her body and life at risk.
Given a position in the police department’s intelligence section for his efforts at the Kwame Ture rally, Ron finds himself fascinated with an ad that calls for white people to join the local chapter of the KKK. On a whim, Ron comes up with a scheme to infiltrate the organization and report on its members’ heinous activities and behaviors. However, no matter how “white” Ron’s voice might sound on the phone, his swagger, deep skin tone and gleaming afro prevent him from meeting the local klansmen face-to-face. Instead, he’s forced to partner with Flip Zimmerman (portrayed seamlessly by Adam Driver), a seasoned Jewish detective who wants nothing to do with Ron’s investigation.
While Ron works the phone, eventually getting an introduction to the infamous Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), Flip must keep his wits about him. He begins bonding with the KKK’s local chapter, which consists of a drunk and a bunch of rednecks all led by Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), a charismatic but hateful man who is the definition of calm and calculated. As Ron and Flip find themselves more intricately involved with the KKK, they uncover a plot to terrorize the black community of Colorado Springs, and they set out to do everything in their power to stop it.
There are undoubtedly brilliant aspects of BlacKkKlansman. Washington is magnetic and thoughtful in his role, and his chemistry with Driver is spot-on. However, his “white voice” is extremely distracting, and because he never changes his cadence, thoughtful commentary about code-switching or even W.E.B. DuBois’ “double consciousness” are muddled within the narrative. Even when Ron is around Patrice or other black people, he never lets his guard down which never allows the audience to see his personality in a less formal state. Still, Ron’s relationship with Patrice represents a compelling divide within the black community concerning the different routes and avenues that we all take to keep ourselves alive in a system not built for us. The film, which was co-written by Lee, also uses horror themes like those found in Jordan Peele’s Academy Award-winning Get Out. This is unsurprising, as Peele is a producer on this film. BlacKkKlansman’s sharp cinematography helmed by Chayse Irvin (Beyonce’s Lemonade), a heartbreaking guest appearance by an iconic black actor and the sharp editing by frequent Lee collaborator Barry Alexander Brown also keep the film elevated.
Still, BlacKkKlansman isn’t entirely wrinkle-free. Lee’s work has never been subtle, and this film is no exception. The filmmaker draws bold parallels between the formal creation of the Klan after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of the Nation and the civil rights movement’s waning influence giving rise to more rampant white supremacy that gave birth to Trump’s America.
The film’s opening sequence stars Alec Baldwin as a 1950s racist who hates the “spread of integration and miscegenation.” Though the scene has hilarious parallels to Baldwin’s work as Trump (or Agent Orange as Lee describes him) on Saturday Night Live, it seems worlds away from the rest of the film. Since large chunks of BlacKkKlansman are focused on making sure the audience gets the point, the movie feels a bit long-winded, and some of the relationships between the characters, Ron and Patrice’s in particular, suffer from not being as fully fleshed out as they deserve.
Additionally, Lee throws in footage from the horrendous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with Trump’s numerous racially charged rants and outbursts to drive the point home even further. BlacKkKlansman also ends on a strange note, paying homage solely to Heather Heyer, the woman who died during the Charlottesville rally, but not the countless other folks who have lost their lives since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement or since Charlottesville. When asked about this choice during a press event for BlacKkKlansman, Lee said, “People with the same goals and ideals come together and move forward. We can’t just do it ourselves, and I think that we have to have a bigger heart to embrace people who are righteous and want to help. That’s my opinion.”
Despite some of the hiccups, Lee’s statements about white supremacy, Trump and the terror that rains down on people of color are quite evident in BlacKkKlansman, and he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. While much of the film is dark and triggering, moments of happiness and humor sprinkled throughout the narrative help keep the audience focused and entertained. Most importantly BlacKkKlansman puts a spotlight on Ron Stallworth’s astounding story while allowing Washington to begin crafting his legacy in Hollywood. After all, anything is possible when you sound Caucasian on the phone.
BlacKkKlansman premieres August 10, 2018.
The film won the Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.