by Peter J. O'Connell
BlacKKKlansman. Released: Aug. 2018. Runtime: 135 mins. MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.
Pulpy films with racial themes—such as The Klansman, Mandingo, and the “blaxploitation” flicks (Super Fly, Shaft, etc.)--were popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, as were such comical “switched-identity” films as Watermelon Man and Freaky Friday. Now director Spike Lee has given us a fact-based film about race and identity switches in the 1970s that is an outstanding “dramedy.”
BlacKKKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American officer hired by the Colorado Springs police department. Ron encounters both friendship and discrimination from his fellow cops. Assigned to the records room, he is bored and requests undercover work.
One of his first undercover assignments is to attend a rally at a local college at which “black power” advocate Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) speaks. At the rally Ron meets a student leader, the lovely Patrice (Laura Harrier). Ron starts dating Patrice but is conflicted by her hostile attitude toward cops, whom she calls “pigs.”
One day Ron is startled to see a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan in the Colorado Springs newspaper. He calls the number in the ad and, using his own name but pretending to be a white man, chats with the local KKK leader, Walter (Ryan Eggold), who invites him to come and meet other members. The spit-and-polish police chief (Robert John Burke) agrees to acceptance of this invitation, but to deal with the obvious problem, real Ron will be the telephone connection with the Klan, but the “white Ron” will be Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver).
Ironically, Flip is a Jewish officer, and Jews, of course, have, like blacks, historically been targets of the Klan. To add to the irony, though Flip is Jewish that identity never has meant much to him. His outlook changes, however, as he becomes involved with the Klan members. He begins to see Jewish identity as a very precious thing.
In addition to Walter, who is eager for new members, the main Colorado Springs KKK members are Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), who is more radical and intensely suspicious of new members, and the somewhat slow-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), who cyptically refers to an upcoming attack. The Klansmen sometimes come across like three “Stooges” but at other times as moral monsters. The banality of their evil is embodied in the suburban settings where they meet and are served coffee and cookies by Felix's solicitous wife (Ashlie Atkinson).
Suspense mounts as Flip attempts to fend off the probings of Felix. Humor increases as real Ron engages in a number of “simpatico” long-distance conversations with KKK head, David Duke (Topher Grace). As part of an attempt to gain respectability for the Klan, Duke styles himself as “National Director” rather than “Grand Dragon” and wears three-piece suits instead of white robes and hood. He says that he can tell that Ron is true white man by the way that he speaks.
Matters move to a climax both harrowing and hilarious when Duke comes to Colorado Springs for the induction of “white Ron” (Flip) into the KKK and “black Ron” is assigned by the police department to provide security for the National Director. All this while the local chapter sets about launching its attack.
The movie ends with some actual news footage reminding us that the KKK is still around 40 years after the Stallworth story and that racism is still a problem. These points are hammered home at the end, but the bulk of the film is most powerful when more subtle, as when the Klan members walk away from a shooting range and we see the targets at which they have been firing.
The acting throughout is fine; in fact, excellent by Driver, Burke, and Grace. John David Washington, Denzel Washington's son, is quite good as Stallworth, though his emotional range might be more varied. He deserves kudos, however, for his skill at wearing the Afro wig that Lee's costume department has inflicted upon him. It looks more like a motorcycle helmet than a head of hair.