August 29, 2018
John David Washington
2 Hrs., 15 Mins.
ne afternoon, in the late 1970s, something caught Ron Stallworth’s eye while reading the newspaper at his desk. While skimming the local gazette’s wanted section, he was confounded to learn that a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had recently emerged in the area, and that the group was looking for new members.
Impulsively, Ron, a black detective employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department, responded to the listing, in character as a slur-happy bigot who wanted to “do something” about the racially charged hoopla supposedly dirtying the country. Unthinkingly, he signed off with his given name. The KKK, ever-hungry, was intrigued; they wanted to meet this caller. Shortly afterward, Ron convinced his higher-ups to greenlight a clandestine investigation of the terrorist organization, preemptively to hinder any potentially violent plans.
Thus began an eight-to nine-month perusing. Ron would chat with KKK power figures over the phone — even, on occasion, with the group's discomfitingly well-groomed, dead-eyed Grand Wizard, David Duke— while a white colleague would pose as Ron in the flesh. Another co-worker would later go out into the field, too. Eventually, the police department would learn that several members of the U.S. Armed Forces had connections to the Klan; two of them, alarmingly, were in breathing distance of nuclear-weapon triggers.
None of this would be revealed — in part due to the department's budget-cut-enforced disposing of all evidence in the aftermath of the discovery — until a series of interviews conducted in 2006, a little after Ron retired at the age of 52. Undiscussed nuances would not be explored to their full extent until 2014, the year Ron published a memoir, Black Klansman, which went into even the smallest of the investigation’s minutiae.
In 2017, the book’s rights were secured by the producer Sean Redick; soon after, the director Spike Lee signed on to helm, co-write, and co-produce an adaptation. The finished product, the eye-catchingly titled BlacKkKlansman, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. And it is one of the best films of the year so far — an unsettling, restive study of the racial and social climates of the 1970s and how they relate to now.
The film is certainly a loose adaptation. (As early title cards announce, it is based on some “fo’ real, fo’ real shit"; the setting is moved from the late 1970s to the decade's earlier half.) It stars a vital John David Washington — son of Denzel — as Ron, who is hired as the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black officer as the film opens. From the get-go, Ron, who has long-daydreamed of becoming an undercover detective, is confined to the records room. Maltreatment, especially from a ferociously blinkered colleague named Landers (Fred Weller), is an everyday occurrence. But our hero, who refuses to be a pushed-around, forever-green facet, soon requests to see his furtive investigation dreams through.
The request, to his surprise, is granted. He is assigned, partially due to the recent concerns expressed by the oversuspicious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to observe a black student union-organized Black Panther rally. There, Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), the Black Panther icon who’s recently begun going by the Kwame Ture moniker, will be speaking. While at the gathering, though, Ron finds himself thrilled rather than troubled. The situation, professionally, that is, is further ruffled when he meets, and soon begins a relationship with, Patrice (Laura Harrier), the union’s president. To Ron’s dismay, she has an understandable aversion to cops, which leads him to forge an alternate identity.
Once the brief Ture investigation cools, the aforementioned KKK-probing unexpectedly comes to a head. And it doesn’t take long for Ron to persuade the chief, the no-nonsense Bridges (Robert John Burke), that an infiltration of the hate group is necessary, given the conflict that might blow up as a result of the noticeable presence of the other radical organization in the area. Flip (an excellent Adam Driver), Ron’s white, more-experienced counterpart, will serve as the acting Ron, all microphoned up, performatively racist, and secretly Jewish. Ron, always behind a desk or the wheel of a car, will assist and plan.
A circlet of tension surrounds the action, stretched until it snaps into an equal-parts thoughtful and infuriating climax. With flavor, Lee and his co-writers, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott, craft scene after scene adorned with caustic wit and effective shock. All are interested in dichotomies: perception of self versus perception by others; performance versus sincerity; the affordances and limitations of one's racial identity; the seismic differences between declarations of white and black power. The sequences centered around Flip’s invasions are especially riveting: the KKK’s delusions, and dangers, are presented with jarring, but necessary, directness.
Much of the film’s imagery — imbued with references to classic Hollywood fare (like 1939’s Gone with the Wind) and propaganda — clarifies that BlacKkKlansman is, in many ways, a response to The Birth of a Nation, the stylistically groundbreaking, comprehensively racist, D.W. Griffith-directed epic from 1915. Infamously, that film imagined a world wherein the Klan comprises men who are out-and-out heroes.
The Birth of a Nation’s presence is felt. Its promotional poster, which places a horse-riding, torch-bearing KKK member against a peacock-blue background, is seen a number of times. In one scene, a group of the organization’s card-carriers, in the aftermath of an initiation ceremony, screen the 193-minute silent, and rejoice in the film’s racism with bacchanalic zest. BlacKkKlansman, most visibly, also undermines The Birth of a Nation’s characterization of the Klan's constituents as lionhearts: Here, the group is presented as the collection of dangerous dolts that it is.
Overarchingly, Lee uses the century-old cinematic Homeric’s continued observance and conflicted reverence — an act which, at its core, perpetuates its ideologies — as a symbol for our culture’s oft-inadvertent preservation of bigotry. The artistic decision, too, complements the broader truth that Lee's (sometimes denounced) highlighting of polarities and extremes only further illuminates the smaller myriad cultural trends and realities sitting between them. The themes spotlighted in the movie will never dissipate: they will just, as they always have, transmogrify and evolve.
BlacKkKlansman has, I think rightfully, been criticized for so provocatively, and intensely, delving into racial politics without as closely scrutinizing the all-central police, who are partly responsible for conserving structural racism diurnally. But the film's underlying ideas, and the bold ways the film reveals them, are, otherwise, sagely scripted and staged. BlacKkKlansman ends, strikingly, with an emulsion of footage from last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Included, in graphic detail, is the attack that led to the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old waitress; the film is dedicated to her memory. Then, an American flag fills the screen in close-up. Suddenly, it flips over; its trademark red, white, and blue are traded for muted grays and whites. That image fades away. But it, however gauche it might be, burns in the memory. And so does the imperfectly brilliant film from which it comes. A