Updated: Feb 7, 2020
With everything that has happened in our country over the last few years, both socially and politically, it was only a matter of time before those in the entertainment industry responded using their art. 2018 has had several films that have a lot to say about modern-day America. Black Panther, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, all great, all add to the conversation about where we are currently at as a nation and as a people.
They are now joined by Spike Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, a based-on-real-life dark comedy that is just as provocative as the title suggests. It is very funny, powerful and occasionally difficult to watch. It is extremely possible this film may make you feel uncomfortable at some point during its 129 minute running time (minus the end credits). That is one of many reasons BlacKkKlansman needs to be seen.
The plot tells the story of Ron Stallworth (adapted from his memoir, “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime”), a black man who became the first minority to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department. In an effort to demonstrate his value and truly make a difference, he begins an undercover investigation into the Ku Klux Klan. He makes contact with them over the phone while his white partner, the non-religious Jewish cop Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman, meets with the KKK members in person. The operation forces both men to take a deep look at who they are and what they believe in.
Ron is trying to transform the system from within. In addition to attempting to prove that a black cop can be just as good as a white one, he also wants to steer things in a direction where black people are treated with the same respect as their white neighbors. He finds resistance from inside the police department as well as from some in the black community who accuse him of working with the enemy. His investigation is in direct response to his initial assignment to go undercover at a black student group meeting. Getting involved in this world makes him really think about what the best approach is for creating lasting change.
For Flip, it is something of a wakeup call. He has spent his whole life being Jewish in name only. Now he is around people who would hate him for his religion, regardless of whether or not he practices it. Embodying someone like them causes him to consider things he has never thought about before. This leads to the introduction of the concept of “passing” into the story. Ron passes as white during his phone calls with Klan members, but he obviously could not get away with that in person. Flip, however, can hide in plain sight. In a way, he has been passing as non-Jewish his entire life. The events depicted in this film make him ponder what his heritage means to him.
There is a lot of depth in BlacKkKlansman. Some of that comes from the performances. John David Washington (son of Denzel) is charismatic and funny as Ron. He understands how he needs to behave to give himself a chance with these ignorant people he is dealing with (both the Klan and his fellow police officers). He is also responsible for much of the comedy, specifically in his phone conversations with a very good Topher Grace as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
Adam Driver gives a more introspective performance as Flip. While Ron can never escape who he is (that is made apparent nearly every time a white person looks at him), Flip could be anything. There is a lot of discussion about how this investigation is a crusade for Ron, but just a job for Flip. How long can he hear such hateful speech until it starts affecting him? Driver is gradual in how he responds to the situation. It is the best performance of his career.
Director/producer/co-writer Spike Lee does not approach bigotry from only one direction. He attacks it on all sides. He goes after those who perpetrate it as well as those who enable it to continue by doing nothing. This is a humorous movie, but it is also very angry. Lee’s message appears to be that we have not come that far as a people in the last 100 years. He not only explores what it is like for an African American to be the target of so much hatred, but also Jews and any other group that has been the victim of an organization such as the KKK.
You may like BlacKkKlansman. You may not. Either way, it is impossible for me to believe anyone could leave it without strong feelings about what they have seen on screen, especially the parallels Lee draws between our past and our present. This is a tremendously entertaining film. I laughed a lot. Yet I left the theater sad and frustrated. Spike Lee has made a movie of great passion. I do not know if it will change any minds or open any eyes but, at the very least, it should inspire some really interesting conversations.
5 out of 5
John David Washington as Ron Stallworth
Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman
Michael Buscemi as Jimmy Creek
Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas
Ryan Eggold as Walter Breachway
Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix Kendrickson
Topher Grace as David Duke
Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee