In the new movie “BlacKkKlansman” a strange true story from the 1970’s is used to bring up some controversial issues of today. Rick Brough has the Friday Film Review.
With his latest film, legendary director Spike Lee comes armed with an incendiary political passion.
But in these divisive times, he’s not alone. And in the end “BlacKkKlansman” may be preaching to a choir that’s already pissed off and has marched out the door.
Still, it should be noted that the movie tells an incredible story that is absolutely true—with a few bits here and there that are made up.
It’s the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, who joined the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970’s as the department’s first black officer—their “Jackie Robinson” as somebody puts it.
Stallworth (played by John David Washington) works his way into the investigative unit. One day he sees a Klan ad in the paper, impulsively dials the number, and when he gets an answer, spews epithets in his best white nerdy voice. And he’s invited to join up! And, by the way, he gave them his real name.
But to infiltrate the Klan (or “The Organization” as they like to put it) Ron Stallworth has to become a sort of two-headed creature. Ron maintains contact on the phone. The guy who shows up in person is his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver.)
Ron does so well, he even manages to contact a young fellow, name of David Duke, who is the Grand Wizard of the national Klan.
Naturally, folks in the audience are wondering, is this story really about the rise to power of “You Know Who”
A few hints—The first person we see is a pompous old-style Klan leader played in a cameo by—Alec Baldwin.
Before long, another character warns about Duke—the presentable bigot in a three-piece suit—and prophecies that someday he will place a leader in the White House. Duke talks about “America First” and “restoring American greatness again.”
The film even tortures the timeline a little to make its point. Stallworth’s undercover operation took place in the late 1970’s. The film is in the early part of the decade, so that the Klan meeting can be shown with “Nixon/Agnew” re-election posters in the background.
Lee is most effective when he can throw real history at you, like a dash of cold water. In one scene, Harry Belafonte, fragile but hypnotic, plays a fictional character telling a real story—the grisly lynching of a black man in the mid-1910’s.
And the film ends with images of Charlottesville. It’s no coincidence the film was released last week.
The trouble is the fictional Klan characters in the movie are predictable. They’re an anti-climax—like the alt-right folks last week who promised a mighty one-year-anniversary gathering and brought forth—dozens of people.
The bigots in “BlacKkKlansmen” are knuckle-dragging buffoons or junkyard dogs. They’re basic types out of Hollywood Redneck 101. And Lee spends a lot of time hitting you about the head to remind you how repulsive they are—especially when they’re yapping gleefully at a showing of “Birth of a Nation.” As for David Duke—he’s played thinly by Topher Grace, who still looks like he just started shaving.
The film does have a number of good performances—led by Adam Driver, and as Stallworth, John David Washington, the son of Denzel, who once played Malcolm X for Spike Lee. The younger Washington does a good job of showing nerviness, humor and outrage in a character who keeps his own counsel a lot.
So what scenes are real and what are fiction? According to reports, it is true that when Duke came to Colorado, Stallworth was assigned to his security detail. The scene where a racist cop gets his come-uppance? Sadly, that’s fiction.
For some people, the most important element here will be Spike Lee’s pure expression of disgust, anger and combative determination.
Well, bully for him. But “BlacKkKlansmen” still feels like it generates more heat than light. It manages to light up three-and-a-half tiki torches out of five. For the Friday Film Review, sponsored by the Park City Film Series, I’m Rick Brough.