In 1979, undercover Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth noticed a phone number in a local newspaper in a small ad seeking members to begin a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He called the number and pretended to be a white supremacist, hoping to infiltrate the organization in order to thwart the rising violence against black residents in general and the black student union at the college in particular. Soon the KKK leader suggested that they meet in person. The only hitch? Ron Stallworth was black.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman tells the tale, and it’s a gripping, suspenseful, often humorous, and often troubling one. As the film narrates the story, KKK leader Walter Breachway (played in the movie by Ryan Eggold) eventually asks for a face-to-face meeting with Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), Stallworth arranges for a white undercover narcotics cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to stand in for him. Yes, a black and a Jew both manage to infiltrate the hateful KKK by posing as the same white supremacist. Stallworth continues to talk with Walter by phone while Zimmerman continues to meet with Klan members in person, necessitating that their stories and even their voices match. Walter’s second in command, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), grows suspicious, or perhaps jealous, and as his sadistic streak surfaces we worry for Zimmerman’s life.
Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, but after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.
During the course of his investigation Stallworth contacts David Duke himself (Topher Grace), then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and future Louisiana State Representative. The boyish Grace, best known for the TV series That ’70s Show, plays Duke with perfect oblivion to his bigotry. Lee is a bit heavyhanded, however, in his determination to connect Duke’s rhetoric with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric.
Adam Driver provides a nuanced performance as the lapsed, nonchalant Jew forced to confront his feelings about his heritage when he is threatened simply because of his genetic stew. Corey Hawkins is fiery as Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), and Laura Harrier channels Angela Davis luminously with her big round glasses and bigger round afro as Patrice Dumas, president of the black student union. Harry Belafonte is a standout as Jerome Turner, carrying with him the weary weight of his own decades in the civil rights movement. Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, particularly the slack-jawed near-imbecile Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and Walter’s perky, overweight, frilly aproned wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). But after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.
While the plot of BlackKKlansman covers just nine months in the 1970s, the story spans more than a century. It opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, presents upsetting clips from Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the KKK, and ends with footage from the deadly riot in Charlottesville last year. And Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner provides a soft-spoken, emotional, and tender account of the horrifying 1916 lynching and burning of Jerome Washington in Waco, Texas.
If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry.
I’m always a little uncomfortable and defensive when I see films like this; it’s important to be aware of black history, and I’m glad these stories are being recorded on film. But it feels as though I’m intruding somehow, as though all whites are being accused of the same ignorant, bigoted mindset that we see on the screen. In reality, of course, white supremacists represent a tiny minority of the population, while white voters, white activists, white teachers, and white politicians have worked vigorously in the cause of civil rights.
If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry. Government legalized slavery and enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. Government institutionalized segregation through neighborhood-based public schools and “separate but equal” policies, and governments outlawed miscegenation. Government imposed poll taxes and voting questionnaires. Government grants and welfare in the 1960s were well-intentioned, but they incentivized single motherhood, established barriers to work through public assistance programs that were difficult to relinquish for an entry-level job, and created a dragnet rather than a safety net that virtually destroyed the black family in urban neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, activists — black and white, male and female — exercising their rights to free speech and open dialogue were the catalyst for change and inclusion. Freedom of speech is the most important right we have. It’s the foundation for all other rights. Yet too many activists today are turning to government to establish hate laws that limit free speech. These films seldom acknowledge the friendship and genuine concern felt by so many white Americans, or the fact that discovery of truth is a process. Lee gives a welcomed nod to this idea at the end of the film, but it takes a long time to get there. Still, BlacKkKlansman is well made and well worth seeing.