Before we get to anything else, this movie is a masterpiece. This is Spike Lee in his element and at his best; something we haven’t gotten nearly enough of since 25th Hour in 2002 (Chi-Raq in 2015 being the lone standout in recent years). This kind of material bring out the best in him as a filmmaker. This is a movie with a purpose, a focus of intent and it’s all the better for it.
This is the mostly true story of a Black undercover cop from Colorado managed to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan over the phone. Some facts are altered to make it a better story, but mostly this is just a real thing that happened. In theory the real nature of this story puts it slightly on the backfoot to start with for me personally, as I’ve grown increasingly disinterested in movies that fictionalize real events; although I was immediately sold on this from seeing the trailer. For a movie like this to work for me these days it can’t just be good it needs to be great (The Death of Stalin from earlier this year is another example of a great movie making this work for me.), and as I hoped going in, BlacKkKlansman totally delivered.
The skeleton of this film is just a great cop story. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is a rookie and the first Black cop in Colorado Springs who is sick of the records room, he requests a transfer to work undercover. After being initially rebuffed, his opportunity comes when he is assigned to attend a local rally where a national civil rights leader, Kwame Ture, is going to speak. The rally, being hosted by the black student union turns out to be relatively benign but it does spark something in Stallworth, who also meets and goes for a drink with the student union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). After the success of that assignment Stallworth gets permanently reassigned to the intelligence division. Then one day while reading the paper he sees an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan, which he calls successfully establishing a relationship with the president of the chapter and scheduling a meeting (Though he does use his own name). He then works with his coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who will pretend to be Stallworth for the in person meetings while Stallworth continues to do the over the phone conversations.
That setup is ridiculous, super complicated, and an actual thing that happened (Although the officer playing Stallworth in person was not Jewish in real life, that is a movie change which I do think is additive to the movie). The meat of the story is Stallworth and Zimmerman monitoring this group of KKK members, disrupting their operations and uncovering their plot for violence. This story just makes for a good cop movie.
I also appreciate the fact that Lee makes a point of showing a lot of black faces on the screen. I could feel him going “No we need more black faces on screen. No, more. More. More. I think we need more. Yeah, we need more.” In an industry and world where there are never enough different black faces on screen I really like him just cramming more in there. Particularly because by necessity so many of the characters in this film are completely garbage white people.
The thing that really makes Spike Lee’s version of this story work so well though is that he doesn’t tell this story as a victory. So many movies about real events get sentimental about how meaningful their story was and try to cap off the point where the movie ends as a special triumphant moment. Lee plays the ending to this story like a great piece of music; there’s the successful resolution of the investigation, the harsh reality that immediately follows, a fun cathartic moment for the characters, and then he fucking throws the piano out the window in disgust because the world is fucked.
It’s powerful and effective. Lee understands what’s fun and compelling about this story, but he also understands it’s ultimate significance in context. There is a way this movie could have been made and been too cute with allusions to today and that the United States currently has a racist president (as it has had in the past). But I think Spike uses the correct tool to cut this line with at the end: a fucking sledgehammer.
This is a great film. Highly recommended.
Thank You For Your Time.