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Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee gets his groove back.

Focus FeaturesFocus FeaturesBack in the mid-1970s, Ron Stallworth became the first black police officer in the town of Colorado Springs, some ways south of Denver. In 1979, in an even more impressive feat of cultural pioneering, he became the first black member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Therein, of course, lies a story. Stallworth told it in a 2014 book, and now it has provided rich material for Spike Lee, a director long-overdue for a hit. The movie he's made from Stallworth's tale is surprisingly funny, mainly because most of the white Klansmen we meet here are such utter buffoons. There are dark currents running through the film, too, of course, and Lee doesn't let them flow by unnoticed. But when you hear one character talking about black people being "shot down in the streets by white racist cops," or saying, "They're killing us like dogs," you'd have to be terminally narcoleptic to miss the contemporary resonance.

There's a sweet continuity in Lee's casting of John David Washington to play Stallworth. The actor made his screen debut in a bit part in Lee's 1992 Malcolm X—a movie that starred John David's father, Denzel Washington. All grown up now, the younger Washington gives a carefully fenced-in performance as a man who can never come all the way out of himself and show people who he really is.

Stallworth was initially used by the Colorado Springs PD as an undercover infiltrator to—what else?—keep tabs on the local black-power scene, especially when outside firebrands like Stokely Carmichael came to town looking to stir things up. The Stokely we see here—played by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the latter-day name Carmichael adopted during a sojourn in Africa—has a powerful oratorical appeal ("Arm yourself, brother, 'cause the revolution is comin'"), and Stallworth, looking around, sees the audience of black students on hand hanging on his angry words. He especially notices a beautiful student-union leader named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier in an Angela Davis-size Afro and period round-rim glasses), who turns out to also be both very smart and quite salty. Talking to her afterwards, Stallworth is immediately frustrated. He can't tell this woman he's a cop (for her and her friends, cops are all "pigs") or that he's wearing a wire, which is being monitored by his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), in a car out on the street. But he hates not being straight with Patrice, because while he's proud to be a cop—he always wanted to be one—he shares her dedication to black liberation.

This setup smoothly ushers us toward the key moment when Stallworth spots a newspaper ad—an ad!—seeking new members for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth calls the number, identifies himself as exactly the sort of racist bumpkin the group prizes, and almost immediately is asked to come meet them face to face. This presents an obvious problem. But Stallworth is able to convince Flip Zimmerman to represent him in this and all future situations requiring actual whiteness.

Soon Flip, wearing a wire of his own, is learning many ridiculous things about the Klan first-hand. To begin with, the group is no longer called that—now it's "The Organization." And its notorious leader, David Duke, is no longer the "Grand Wizard"—now he's the "National Director." Also, while Klan initiation fees are only a few dollars, they don't include the robes and hoods.

The movie's script, written by Lee and Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, creates an especially perceptive moment with Driver's character. Flip is Jewish, but he tells Stallworth he never gave that fact much thought—until he started hanging around the endlessly antisemitic Klansmen. "Now it's all I think about," he says.

The movie is handicapped somewhat by the story's lack of dramatic payoff. There's not a lot of black-vs.-white or cops-vs-klowns action, and what there is—like a bomb-planting subplot—feels worked-up (or maybe invented). But the characters carry the movie solidly on their own merits. Washington is restricted by Stallworth's necessarily cautious nature. But Laura Harrier is the very incarnation of the black-and-proud era (James Brown's great hit gives it voice on the soundtrack); Driver brings his usual warm appeal to the role of a guy for whom the fight against racism is just a part of his job, not a crusade—at least at first; and Paul Walter Hauser and Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen offer variations on racist styles (traditional backwoods dimwit and snarling hate-merchant, respectively).

One of the movie's most interesting performances is by Topher Grace, who plays Klan "director" David Duke with unwavering restraint. Lee can't give us Duke's full, post-1979 backstory, of course: the race-baiting neo-Nazi, alt-right enthusiast and Donald Trump fan who has run for political office as both a Democrat and a Republican (failing dismally in each guise), served time in prison (for tax fraud), and flown the flag of plastic surgery at full staff. We do see him presiding over a screening of D.W.Griffith's blazingly racist The Birth of a Nation (a movie once screened at the White House by the deplorable Woodrow Wilson). But otherwise, Grace plays Duke as what he surely is: an upwardly mobile nincompoop in a cheap three-piece suit, pathetic in his lunatic convictions but—as we saw in Charlottesville last year — still a force for social chaos.

Photo Credit: Focus Features

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  • Kivlor||

    Meh. If I need another couple of hours of "Let's hate on whitey" in my life, I'll just turn on the news. No need to pay Lee to make more of it when I can see it for free.

  • MoreFreedom||

    As racist as Spike Lee is, I can't support him by watching his films. He's not looking for good relations with white people, he's looking to use government to oppress them, like with affirmative action but in other ways, like the ways the Democrat KKK did to blacks in the South. And like those supporting freedom then, I'll boycott the racist businesses, in this case by not watching Lee's films.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    A Spike Lee Joint.

    Im sure there will be hypocrisy that "kill whitey" films and videos will remain on social media while other 'hate' speech are removed.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Aren't people like Spike Lee and Lefty politicians the only people peddling race animosity among Americans?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    If you consider All Sharpton a politician.
    Also Sarah Jeong.

  • CDRSchafer||

    Dave Chapelle already did the black white supremacist bit.

  • Eddy||

    I thought Mel Brooks did it first.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Dave Chappelle did it better.

    Clayton Bigsby!

  • Eddy||

  • Cloudbuster||

    While Steve Martin was doing the White Black man.

    "I was born a poor Black child...."

    "You mean I'm going to stay this color?"

  • Originalist Gangster||

    Shit from Shinola

  • ||

    It's too bad we're not given Duke's full backstory: the race-baiting neo-Nazi, alt-right enthusiast and Donald Trump fan who has run for political office as both a Democrat and a Republican (failing dismally in each guise), served time in prison (for tax fraud), and flown the flag of plastic surgery at full staff.

    Perhaps because in 1979 that wasn't his backstory? Nice job getting Donald Trump into your review though!

  • KL||

    You're right about the backstory -- gonna change that. And while I know Trump's not responsible for the people who declare themselves his fans, I think if Vlad the Impaler had proclaimed his admiration for Barack Obama, I'd have been inclined to note it in passing.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Interesting comparison. Vlad the Impaler was a brave leader who defended his nation against an invading Muslim horde.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Interesting comparison. Vlad the Impaler was a brave leader who defended his nation against an invading Muslim horde.

  • cravinbob||

    Then you will enjoy this CNN piece on Sturgis. It laments the "fact" that one would be hard-pressed to find a person of color there. Add to that it also notes a shortage of one-percenters which, alas, makes it all boil down to Sturgis rally is just whole bunch of aging, financially stable white guys dominating the scene and they ALL proclaim Donald Trump to be their supreme leader!
    A load of unbelievable hokum believable of course to the loyal viewers of the Chicken Noodle Network....
    https://www.cnn.com/ 2018/08/05/ politics/ sturgis-biker-rally- supports-trump/index. html
    (take out the spaces)

    I was compelled to read this story being that it takes place in the city I reside and have since the mid 1970s. Never saw a white sheet here except for my bedding.

  • cravinbob||

    and... I am also personally familiar with the local 1% motorcycle club who have existed for 50 years here, several members of the club I was proud to call my friends. I did work on their clubhouse and never once did I hear any blatant racist comments other than a few jokes that were in the category of "nothing is sacred" and we all tell jokes. In fact a long time black members 1% club chapter moved here and we all mixed just fine. Of course what people think they know about 1% motorcycle clubs is made-up law enforcement nonsense or bullshit told by members of clubs themselves to a gullible press and public. The club goes to Sturgis every year and perhaps the CNN reporter did not see them is because they own land outside of Sturgis and stay there, not in town. Sturgis is filled with cops during that event and arrested one club member upon his arrival a few years ago. In the course of his booking and before his release a few hours later cops managed to severely injure him. He was already parapalegic and cops "lost control of the wheelchair" somehow. Sturgis ended up paying for their error. I guess the white guy deserved it because of slavery or Indian abuse...

  • Fancylad||

    "and Donald Trump fan"
    Reason staff know that to your average journalist the libertarian moniker is like saying you're a pseudo-witch. You may not be a real witch like on Fox news, but you possibly weigh the same as a duck.

    So in order not to be burned at the twitter stake, to keep getting invited to social functions by their colleagues, and to keep the hope of eventual employment by a national media conglomerate alive, they must denounce Satan and all his works at least once per published article.

    This was Kurt's form of denouncement, a spurious link to David Duke.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Where's the 'black klansman' in this?

    Flip Zimmerman joined the KKK, not Stallworth.

    There ARE actual instances of black men joining the klan. This doesn't even PRETEND to be one of them.

  • Cloudbuster||

    You're missing the point. The point is, "hate Whitey."

  • Cloudbuster||

    You're missing the point. The point is, "hate Whitey."

  • Too Many Straws, Man||

    Stallworth is the one with the KKK membership card with his name on it, though. He still has it, and carries it around in his wallet.

    Most of the work for the membership (afaik) was achieved by Stallworth deceiving the KKK over the phone. Flip (not his real name; also Chuck, the name used in Stallworth's book, wasn't his real name—he changed it to protect the white dude) went by Stallworth's initial character sketch, and carried out things according to his plan. In my book, that all adds up (because it's an accounts book?) to Stallworth being able to plausibly claim that he was, or is, a KKK member.

  • Azathoth!!||

    'Flip' or 'Chuck' or whatever his name really is, is the person who was actually putting his ass on the line. He's the cop who was actually there, in the room , with the KKK--NOT Stallworth.

    Stallworth was in danger of maybe falling asleep and banging his head while waiting for a phone call.

    The white guy was running the risk of getting killed. The white guy was in the field, investigating. The black guy didn't really DO anything except lend his name to the white guy.

    Whoop de fuckin' do.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    But Laura Harrier is the very incarnation of the black-and-proud era (James Brown's great hit gives it voice on the soundtrack);

    The irony, of course, is that James Brown was black and proud of it, but unlike the black liberationists, he didn't hate white people.

  • lap83||

    you'd have to be terminally narcoleptic to miss the contemporary resonance

    I want to start a satirical movie/tv review site where every remotely scary plot detail of every show is considered frighteningly relevant to the current Trumpocalypse

  • Eddy||

    Let's start with Resident Evil VII or whichever number they're up to now.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'd like to see this, but I'm a little skeptical of Spike Lee. He's a talented film maker, but many of his films don't age well. They're all the rage when they come out (except for a few snoozers), but you watch them 10 years later and they don't seem to work as well as they did in the time they were released.

    I think I'll check this one out because the real-life material seems too wacky to pass up.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    James Brown's great hit gives it voice on the soundtrack

    Noted Nixon supporter, James Brown.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    More Americans need to be more aware of right-wing racism. If Spike Lee handled the material well, the movie might be good. If this movie increases public familiarity with the vestigial bigotry on which the conservative-Republican electoral coalition relies, it may do good.

  • MarkLastname||

    Which party was the clan a part of again?

    Remind me again what Woodrow Wilson's thoughts on race were?

  • NashTiger||

    Good point, it is never discussed these days

  • Mark22||

    Has Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland turned into a parody account of himself?

    His statement would be funny if it weren't for millions of African Americans suffering under the massive institutionalized racism of the Democratic party and the progressive movement.

  • Jack Klompus Magic Ink||

    You need to be aware of how many people will cheer the day when you finally buy that gun and shoot yourself in the face.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Gosh, another anti-White movie is just what the market needs.

  • No Longer Amused||

    Every time I see "Spike Lee" I think "Racist asshole liar".....

  • Too Many Straws, Man||

    Just to be clear, this is a movie about a bunch of cops—black and white—who thwarted several plans by a domestic terrorist organization to commit domestic terrorism. The circumstances surrounding it are interesting, and ripe for the genre (comedy, farce) that Spike Lee chose. If you think the movie is about "Let's hate whitey" or centers around some kind of anti-white racism, then I guess ... you think all white people are the same as KKK members? WTF else are we supposed to think?

    Also, if you think Spike Lee makes racist or anti-white movies, then you haven't watched any of his movies. Some of them are pretty good! Some are mediocre. If you're judging him by a few sh¶¶y tweets that he shouldn't have sent out, well then just say so.

  • MarkLastname||

    Spike Lee has openly said racist things about white people. He's a bigot, get over it. Mel Hibson makes good films, but would you trust him to make one about Jews?

    Moreover, Lee is clearly trying to draw parallels between them and today, spurious one's is contebd.

  • Mark22||

    In 1979, in an even more impressive feat of cultural pioneering, he became the first black member of the Ku Klux Klan.

    How is it surprising that an organization founded by Democrats and intimately tied to the Democratic party takes in people from a hugely Democratic demographic?

    How is it surprising that an organization that consistently has preached that blacks are inferior attracts people who buy into the same belief system?

  • toby2||

    why was Trump mentioned? you people just can't let it go can you? no opportunity is missed for a dig at your president is it? hate must be eating you people alive. let it go and become a person....

  • Fancylad||

    Kurt's doesn't want to ruin his chances of getting hired by WaPo or the NYT's somewhere down the line, so every article must refute the devil at least once.

  • cravinbob||

    Kurt Loder?! Really. Too old to do MTV now (was too old then)? Loder does not tell us the truth which is- How is this a story? that is then made into a movie? It is not but and it is. I read about this in the local weekly, local being Colorado Springs and it claims the CSPD command "silenced" this investigation in the end. I doubt that unless they mean not only was it a non-story but having someone else do your work and thus have to testify would lead to a confused courtroom. My take is that there was nothing or nobody to prosecute and this is just a farce to capitalize on the fad of bashing whites lately. Plus nobody can prove he made this up when no files etc can be found. His word must be taken as truth and we all know how honest cops are.
    Yo-yos should be making a comeback soon...

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Wow, sharp black man and prideful black woman, bumbling white cops. Clearly groundbreaking.

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