Spike Lee's reality-based BlacKkKlansman: campy, preachy and entertaining

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A-minus

 Since no one has bothered to point this out yet, I think it’s important to mention that Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, is not a sequel to 1966’s The Black Klansman.

The prior film was a no-budget B-movie about a black jazz musician who infiltrates the Klan to seek vengeance for his daughter who was killed in a church bombing. Somewhat awkwardly, the movie starred a white actor, Richard Gilden, pretending to be black (he grew a goatee) and then white again (he shaved it) to infiltrate the Alabama Klan and wreak vengeance before the movie closes with a JFK quote calling for racial justice.

The original Black Klansman is a terrible movie but somewhat instructive of the tone of Lee’s much more ambitious work, which was the runner-up for the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes. Lee’s film, too, veers between the entertainingly campy and preachy, although it does a much better job of it.

Washington as Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Klan. Adam Driver is his buddy/racist avatar

Washington as Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Klan. Adam Driver is his buddy/racist avatar

At its entertaining center is an  “incredible true story,” the tale of a black Colorado detective, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel), who infiltrated the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK in 1979. He did this by telephone, using a white colleague as his stand-in for face-to-face meetings.

Stallworth first revealed the story of his investigation in a newspaper interview in 2006 and then wrote a book about it in 2014.  While Lee has retained many true details, he also embellishes, compresses the story and apparently pushes the time-frame back to the beginning of the ‘70s and the heyday of the Blaxploitation movie era. That allows BlacKkKlansman to be visually inventive in a playful, corny way (split screens, faces floating in the air), while the character’s psychology is almost entirely on the surface.

We begin with the arrival of Ron (the engaging John David Washington, star of HBO’s Ballers) when he lands a job at the Colorado Springs police force, a beneficiary of a minority hiring program.  

Despite a rough initiation, and run-ins with one racist cop, he soon fits in with the all-white squad. Collegial razzing and pranks follow: Ron could almost be a double for the sitcom character, Detective Ron Harris, the ambitious, intellectual African-American criminologist on Barney Miller, a sitcom that was on the air simultaneously with Stallworth’s investigation.

Some of the fictional embellishments include a love story between Ron and a beautiful student activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who wears an Angela Davis ‘fro and wire-frame glasses and - in case we miss the point - a lapel pin with her heroine’s image on it.  

He meets her when he’s sent to investigate a speech by the political activist, Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), played by Corey Hawkins, who delivers a rousing TED-talk style summary of the Black Power cause, before privately suggesting to the undercover Ron to arm himself for the coming race war.  Of course, Ron can’t let his new crush, Patrice know about his real job because, in her revolutionary vocabulary, he’s just another “pig” -- until he comes clean when her life is in danger.

Lee and his team of writers have made another significant change from the book’s account: Here, Ron’s white buddy, who plays him in face-to-face meetings with the Klan, is Jewish. He’s named Flip Zimmerman and,as played by Adam Driver, has a brooding machismo that’s a foil to Ron’s cocky optimism, and gives him enough street cred to allay most of KKK members’ doubts..

There are a few tense moments as Flip and Ron co-ordinate to get inside the Klan, but overall, this long middle segment drags like a formulaic TV cop show.  There are only so many grotesque rants about Jews and blacks you can hear before the words start turning into one angry buzz.

Lee isn’t overbearing about portraying the KKK cell as fools, though not subtle either. The outstanding dolt is a guy named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser of I, Tonya), your basic beer-chugging, slack-jawed yokel, who is apparently intended as comic relief. The most sinister is Felix (Finnish actor, Jasper Pääkkönen), a hard-staring violence-prone misfit who’s obese wife adores him and can’t wait for her chance to serve the Klan.  

The investigative work finally leads to “Ron” establishing a phone relationship with the Grand Wizard himself David Duke (Topher Grace),  a modern Klan leader with a clean-cut preppie style and vision of mainstreaming white supremacy by running for political office.  (You might remember Duke from his appearances on the news last year, offering his presidential endorsement in the wake of the Charlottesville violence.)  Duke tells Ron that he’s personally coming to Colorado Springs for an official Klan new membership ceremony. Things accelerate:  The black students are planning a protest; the Klan is planning an action, and everything comes together in a schematic crescendo, 

Because he has to preach, Lee keeps breaking out of the story with clips from different stories. He makes impressive use of the famous railyard scene from Gone with the Wind, that zoom back  from the rows of the dead and wounded to a close-up of the Confederate flag. 

But a faux televised public service announcement by Alec Baldwin as a spluttering racist leader feels pointless. We also see the most offensive sequences from D.W. Griffith’s race-inflaming 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, as it’s being watched by KKK members, for inspiration (A weird-but-true detail). 

Meanwhile, a black student rally across town listens to an elderly civil rights worker, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounting the lynching 1916 torture and lynching of a mentally-disabled teen-ager by a Waco, Texas crowd roused by Griffith’s movie, while a third strand leads to a violent showdown. If this juxtaposition feels heavy-handed, it’s meant to be: Lee’s cross-cutting between simultaneous stories is an ironic nod to the emotion-hammering narrative technique that Griffith pioneered. 

Well, that’s one ending. Then there’s the other one that wraps up on a cheery sitcom moment of the prank-happy interracial cops. But I was completely unprepared for the film’s third and final ending, using footage that was shockingly familiar. In truth, I initially hated it because I felt emotionally sucker-punched by Lee slipping the current political “incredible but true” ugliness into this story. Not fair, not fair at all. Which I guess is Lee’s point. 

BlacKkKlansman. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz. Starring John David Washington,  Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser and Ashlie Atkinson. BlacKkKlansman shows at Yonge-Dundas 24, Silvercity Yorkdale and The Varsity Cinemas.