In 1979, a man named Ron Stallworth who was the first African-American police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department also became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan and the leader of the local chapter. He would send a white co-worker to play him for in-person meetings as part of the wild undercover operation, but Stallworth was the one on the phone, insisting his hatred for non-white races with everyone from the local chapter members to the KKK’s “grand wizard” David Duke himself.
It’s Stallworth’s story that provides the framework for Spike Lee’s blistering new film, “BlacKkKlansman ,” but hardly the full picture. Deceptively epic in scope, in “BlacKkKlansman” Lee has made an immensely entertaining film about everything — love, friendship, ambition, civil rights, the power of words and images to uplift and destroy and the various shades and ideologies of racism and revolution that will leave you craving another viewing.
John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, a composed and deliberate man who isn’t afraid to ask for what he wants, whether it’s a job or a quick promotion out of the dreaded records room and into undercover work.
Many around him are quick to throw labels and make assumptions about what he can and can’t do. His co-worker calls him a toad, because of his race. His black student union girlfriend, Patrice, asks if he’s a pig (i.e. a cop). At work, he seems extreme — a rookie suggesting a dangerous undercover operation to infiltrate the KKK. In life, he seems compliant. As Patrice (a brilliant Laura Harrier) tells him, meaningful change is impossible when working within the structures of a racist system.
But Ron has a plan to infiltrate The Organization, and a few around him like the police chief (Robert John Burke), and two detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi) are at least willing to go along with it for a while. Flip draws the card to be in-person Ron, which turns out to be a headache of its own when one of The Organization’s members, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), starts to suspect that he might actually be Jewish.
These scenes are riveting to watch, infused with a perfectly executed tension as Flip carefully navigates his way through meetings and interactions with the group, including the docile chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold), the maniacally sinister Felix and the perpetually drunk and dumb Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). They are, on the whole, dopes used for comedic effect, but there is something else going on below the surface. You’re always keenly aware that these shadowy, back bar racists could with the right leader become the mainstream.
The acting is expert throughout with standout performances by Washington and Driver, especially, who gets a powerful arc. The supporting cast is also notably strong, including Harrier and Topher Grace as David Duke, who is attempting to take The Organization into the mainstream with a gentlemanly demeanor, polished suits and a politician’s smile.
Mind you, “BlacKkKlansman” is not a subtle film and is often repetitive where it least needs it. Stallworth’s “white voice” and racist musings over the phone are perfectly used a few times, until the effect eventually begins to dull.
But it is an exhilarating, distressing, funny and profound film, with one of the more memorable film scores in years, from composer Terence Blanchard. Every frame is packed with meaning and metaphor from the opening, the famous crane shot from Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind,” onward to the sins of the present day. It’s a Spike Lee joint that is not to be missed.
“BlacKklansman,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.” Running time: 135 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.