Spike Lee Returns With the True-Life Tale of KKK Infiltrator Ron Stallworth
DIRECTED BY SPIKE LEE/2018
JIM TUDOR: Recalling a time of deep racial divide and vocal intolerance towards minorities, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is forged and released in a time of deep racial divide and vocal intolerance towards minorities. This, of course, is its raison d’être; an Important Voice making an Important Statement at an Important Time. Make no mistake, BlacKkKlansman comes at us with a raw agenda, an exposed bone to pick. Tackling institutionalized racism and other-ing hatred that has plagued and has negatively defined America, this is, by design, an Important Movie. And, it is. It is also the best buddy movie and cop movie of the year.
Believe it, all of it: BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s most monumental achievement since Do the Right Thing turned up the heat in 1989. The film incorporates almost all of Spike Lee’s trademark flourishes and concerns (among them, racial injustice, the commodification of black people in the media, law enforcement, and cinema history) while also playing out with maximum mainstream appeal- making for a most unique filmgoing experience: The incendiary action-comedy.
Based on a true story and set quite convincingly in the early 1970s, the film tells the tale of San Francisco police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington; Ballers), whom, after being sent undercover to a black student protest rally, decides to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It doesn’t take a master of perception to assume that Stallworth probably won’t get very far with his plot, for obvious reasons. Which is why he poses as white on the phone, then gets his fellow undercover officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver; The Last Jedi, Paterson) to do the actual life-threatening in-person portion, playing the part of a non-existent Ron Stallworth.
Being a non-practicing Jew, Zimmerman initially underestimates the amount of vitriol and suspicion he ends up provoking at the several clandestine Klan meetings he attends. Though his ethnicity is suddenly a danger for him, there’s a quick understanding between he and Stallworth that only one of them can actually pass for white in person. Fortunately, as the operation continues, not everyone in the KKK takes a scunner to him, and ol’ Zimmy gets surprisingly deep into the organization. Eventually, as he gets on with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace), the tension ratchets up considerably as ideologies are truly tested, some pushed to their limits- for both Zimmerman and Stallworth. In this prolonged homestretch, Spike Lee tonally backs down from conjuring laughs, releasing himself from what’s proven to be a most effective appropriation of popular genre- all in the interest of potentially broadening his audience for maximum messaging.
Or is it the other way around? Are the true-story action-comedy grafted onto an advocacy film, or is BlacKkKlansman, at its core, a true-story action-comedy that indulges in asking a litany of difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions? And, how much does the answer to this even matter?
ERIK YATES: I tend to think that BlacKkKlansman is the later, to answer your question. This is a true-story action-comedy that will beg the audience to answer the difficult and uncomfortable questions Spike Lee is asking all of us at this particular time in history. While the premise of the film and the main story you gather from the trailers is “as advertised”, there is both a subversive and an outright overt connection between this story from the early 1970’s and the world we find ourselves in, now. For those who haven’t been paying attention, BlacKkKlansman will remind audience of the force that Spike Lee truly is as he takes on these issues of race, justice, hate, and institutional bias. For him, there is a seemingly renewed razor sharp focus in this particular film. This focus, coupled with the seriousness of our times, helps him deliver maybe one of his most accessible, yet overtly politically charged films in decades.
John David Washington delivers a very multi-layered performance in what could be described as a very straight-faced comedy-bit of simply calling up the Klan, and speaking with a “white” voice as a means to gain access to them. While it seems too obvious on the surface, it is through these phone conversations that the film is able to expose the roots of modern racism, especially that which still is still growing today.
A remarkable thing about this story is that it happened in a place like Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Ron Stallworth was the only black police officer. We might expect this story to take place in the typical segregated south, where much of the civil rights movement took place, and as a result, where much of the Klan activity was most prominently demonstrated. Instead, Colorado is the battleground where Stallworth is able to accept the challenge to be the trailblazer on this particular police force that is in itself fraught with institutional racism. Stallworth, like Jackie Robinson, would have to simply “take it”, meaning all of the racists comments and actions by his fellow officers, without fighting back, the police chief tells him. This is a tough challenge in any setting, but all the more so when one is in a profession that is supposed to embody the highest ideals of the land, not perpetrate the lowest moral character in our society. The fact that the Klan is allowed to thrive in such a place as Colorado Springs is one of the strongest indictments against this particular police force, but an even louder warning to us as well. If it can happen there, how much more so could it happen anywhere? Stereotyping this type of institutional racism to simply existing primarily in the South no longer holds water, BlacKkKlansman seems to say. This isn’t just a regional issue. It belongs to all of us. The blame, but also how we confront it.
Lee seems to offer options on how we can respond. On one hand, our response to all of this can’t just be found in expressing moral outrage, anger, or reciprocal violence. Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier; Spider-Man: Homecoming) symbolizes and demonstrates the radical anger that was embodied in the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, especially that of the student movement. This was seen by the white community to be fueled by the speeches of figures like Stokey Carmichael, later who adopted the name Kwame Ture (played here by Corey Hawkins; Straight Outta Compton). It is one such speech by Ture in Colorado Springs that stirrs the heart of Ron Stallworth. BlacKkKlansman shows that this kind of anger has a moral high ground. However, the film also shows that the anger and the hatred of the Klan can’t be met by an equal level of anger, and reciprocal actions, however morally grounded it might be.
Much of this internal battle of needing to react to the Klan, but having to choose the best way forward, seems to evoke another of Spike Lee’s films, Malcolm X, and the larger debate among those who were a part of the civil rights movement. Should the answer be found in Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for non-violence that embodied much of the civil rights movement? This was not in any way a passive movement, and despite the focus on non-violence, it was highly confrontational. Or, was the answer to the Klan to be found in responding out of righteous anger, even if that meant violence, as was often called upon by someone like Malcolm X? Stallworth finds himself in such a precarious position, having two choose between two similar approaches. Does he systemically, and methodically, use his position as a police officer, and their undercover operation, as a means to bring about justice, and true change in society by trying to eradicate a hate group like the Klan though the means of the law? Or, does he give in to the emotional cries of Patrice Dumas, Kwame Ture, that he has felt in his own heart, and rise up through acts of violence to bring down the Klan? This is especially tempting when it feels right, and is grounded in that moral high ground.
The film couples this internal argument with two very different pleas intended to bring about change. One from the side of the oppressed. The other from the side of the racist oppressor. The first features a powerful story delivered by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), as he shares his first person account of witnessing a lynching to Patrice Dumas and her student group. The other is the “patriotic” call to take back America and reclaim its “true” Anglo-European, white heritage, in a propaganda film by Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin in a perfect role that will juxtapose nicely with his latest popular impression on SNL of President Trump) that ties in very closely to the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which itself was responsible for an increase in Klan membership at the time of its release.
JIM TUDOR: So many questions, so much history. BlacKkKlansman implements a special way of invoking as many and as much of them as it can in its reasonable running time. Spike Lee has never been known for his subtlety nor his suffering of fools. The Klan members, in turn and as depicted here, get no such sympathy. They represent the pure racial hatred at heart of America. In achieving the representation, Lee leans into the cartoony, yes (has anyone since the age of talkies gotten as excited by a screening of Birth of a Nation as these nincompoops do??), but as we’re reminded, reality is all too often stranger- and more harrowing- than fiction, or adapted reality, for that matter. Alongside of our hero are a run of individuals running the racism gamut, from deliberate hatred to the far-more-common ingrained and institutionalized varieties.
Adam Driver is, as always, a pleasure to watch act. Washington emerges from virtually nowhere as a bona fide leading man. Spike Lee is back with a vengeance. And unfortunately, the points of this powerful and entertaining film still need all of them in order to be made.
Erik Yates: All of this is very serious, and important stuff, and yet Lee delivers it all in a very accessible action-comedy that truly goes for the throat, even as there are laughs to be had from the film’s outrageously true story. By the time BlacKkKlansman shifts into an homage to black exploitation films of the 1960’s and 1970’s, we the audience are transported via video footage to the modern day parallels of Ron Stallworth’s 1970’s experiences. It is here that Spike Lee has the audience by the jugular, forcing them to consider the evidence, and puts the choice to them on what is the best way forward.
Do we meet anger, and hate with more of the same in an ever-escalating tension that is already boiling over? Or, do we together recognize the loss of humanity that we are all experiencing and find a way to bring forth true justice, institutional change, and healing? In the end, the things BlacKkKlansman shows us will certainly evoke an emotional response. The real question is: if we truly want to heal, what do we do with such outrage, especially when our anger is a righteous anger directed at the continued racism and injustice we see in our world today?