On the poster for BlacKkKlansman it’s noted that the film is “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” With the additional modifiers, it’s reasonable to wonder if the movie’s trying too hard to convince you it’s the truth, and a fair portion of the film is more ”based on” than “true story.” However, a crazy, outrageous, and incredible amount of the story is in fact true. Sadly, it’s even more relevant today than it was when the events took place in the 1970s.
It is the perfect story for Spike Lee to tell. Lee has dealt overtly and covertly with racial themes for over thirty years now. Sometimes it’s front and center, such as in Do The Right Thing, Malcom X, or Bamboozled. Other times it’s subtext within the story; good examples are Inside Man and Miracle of St. Anna. Lee can also move easily from fiction to documentary. He had a towering achievement with his devastating 4-plus hour dissection of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, When the Levees Broke. Three years have passed since his last “joint” (as he calls his films), the modern-day version of the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” set in Chicago, Chi-Raq. Like Giancarlo Stanton of his beloved New York Yankees, when Lee gets a pitch that’s in his wheelhouse, he hits it out of the park. BlacKkKlansman is the equivalent of a hanging breaking ball, and he crushes it.
In 1974, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black member of the Colorado Springs Police Department. He’s tucked away in the property room and faces prejudice on the part of members on the force. But then he’s pulled out for an undercover assignment – monitoring a speech given by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) under the auspices of the black student union at the university. By then Carmichael had embraced a pan-African philosophy and changed his name to Kwame Ture. While his assignment is to observe, Ron is drawn to the ideology expressed by Ture – and to the head of the black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). As a result of his work, Ron’s permanently assigned to the intelligence division of the department.
When he sees a small ad in the paper for the local Klan, Ron calls the number listed and gets a call back from the head of the chapter (Ryan Eggold). Ron spouts off racist things he’s heard and is invited to become a member. He obviously can’t show up himself, so he recruits another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to play him. Soon they’re inside the Klan, and even make contact with the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Washington, who for the last few years has starred with Dwayne Johnson on the HBO series “Ballers,” is the son of Denzel, a frequent collaborator of Lee’s. Lee wanted Washington from the start, and it’s a perfect bit of casting as he blends sincerity and outrage with a wry wit. He’s well-matched with Driver, who can speak volumes without saying a word. The screenplay, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee, creates the character of Flip pretty much out of whole cloth, since Stallworth kept his partner’s identity under wraps and only referred to him as Chuck. Flip becomes a stand-in for some in the film’s audience, a man who hasn’t thought much about racism until he’s forced to confront it. A bit of a surprise is how effectively Grace inhabits the role of David Duke. He nails the banality of evil, the Grand Wizard who covers his racism with a blanket of politically-correct lexicon.
Lee expands the story at the beginning with the rough cut of a ‘50s era segregationist pleasantly explaining his racial theories while exploding in invective when he messes up. Alec Baldwin is perfection in the cameo role (just as he’s been on a certain Saturday night program this past year). The expansion also occurs at the end, where Lee gives the audience three endings. The first qualifies as a standard Hollywood ending, putting everything right in the world, while the second is closer to what actually happened at the end of the investigation. The third, though, is a gut punch. It pulls the story into the present, and even includes a news footage appearance by the real David Duke, doing a decent impression of Topher Grace.
When the ugly underbelly of racism in this country breaks into the open, people of good heart understand it must be cleansed. It feels, though, with the sheer number of instances in the past few years, that we’re stuck in the eternal loop of the classic directions on a shampoo bottle: Wash, Rinse, Repeat. If you follow those directions exactly, you’ll be caught in a loop that keeps you in the tub forever. But it that’s the price to eliminate racism, so be it. Some stains require multiple washings, especially when they’ve been allowed to set into the fabric of clothes, or the fabric of a country.
If you’d like to know more about the real story versus the reel story, click here. (Caution: Spoilers)