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Culture » Film Reviews

Undercover Racist

Spike Lee delivers a searing, timely look at American hate in BlacKkKlansman.


  • Focus Features

Nowthisis a Spike Lee Joint: searing drama, hilarious comedy, a touch of tonal messiness, occasionally angry as hell. In short,BlacKkKlansmanis great, and Lee is firing on all thrusters. And lest ye think the joint, about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer in Colorado Springs becoming a member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, is a little too hard to believe, the words on screen—"Based on some fo' real, fo' real shit"—suggest otherwise.

How fo' real? I dunno; I haven't read Stallworth's memoir. But given how outrageous our current national situation is—in which America is again openly wearing its racism on its hip—I have little reason to doubt the authenticity ofBlacKkKlansman, or even care whether it's exaggerated. It's a poignant and entertaining story at a time when many big national releases just aren't poignant or entertaining.

In the late 1970s, Stallworth, CSPD's first black cop, is stuck in the records room. One day, the chief (Robert John Burke, the character actor you've seen a million times but can't quite place), assigns Stallworth to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech, wanting to know whether Carmichael is giving the local black populace any revolutionary ideas.

Stallworth knows it's a bullshit assignment, but he does it, and does it well, so the chief makes Stallworth an undercover officer full-time. One day at the new gig, he comes across a want ad for the Ku Klux Klan and, on impulse, calls and leaves a message. To his surprise, he's called back instantly by Walter (Ryan Eggold), the local chapter president. Before long, Stallworth has launched into a racist tirade about how he hates every group under the sun, but especially blacks. Meanwhile, Stallworth's fellow officers have all turned around in their seats, not believing what they're hearing.

When Stallworth hangs up the phone, pleased at having made contact, his fellow undercover officer Phil Zimmerman (Adam Driver) says, "You didn't use your real name, did you?" Rookie mistake. But the joke's on Zimmerman, who has to play "Ron" when meeting local Klan members in person.

The real Stallworth's infiltration is a smashing success. He's so good at playing a racist white guy on the phone that when he calls the Klan's national headquarters to expedite his membership, he impresses national director David Duke (Topher Grace), who can't wait to meet him in person. If you asked me to name the least threatening actor alive, I'd say, "Topher Grace. I mean, the guy's name isTopher." But that's the idea, right? The national director for a group of racists can't be a muscle-bound He-Man who looks as if he could crush you with his bare hands; he has to be your non-threatening neighbor who loves barbecues, ball games, and quietly (and politely) seeks to eradicate "inferior" races.

It's a testament to Lee's strengths as a writer and director that he makes all the disparate elements of the story work so well: One moment we're laughing nervously as Zimmerman (as "Ron") and the Klansman are target shooting. The next, we're cringing as the real Stallworth sneaks in afterword to pick up spent shell casings for evidence—and sees that the targets are racist black caricatures.

As entertaining asBlacKkKlansmanis, Lee spends a good deal of screen time showing how draining and, ultimately, dangerous the assignment is for everyone. Stallworth accidentally involves his sort of-girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier), a student activist, when an especially psychotic Klan member shows up at his apartment unannounced. Meanwhile, Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew ("Passing," Ron tells him), first sees the assignment simply as a job, but the more he witnesses the Klan's hate, the more important his Jewish identity becomes to him.

Then there's the poison of racism bubbling up from under the front-loaded laughs, as Lee juxtaposes scenes of "Ron"/Zimmerman's Klan initiation (after which they watch D.W. Griffith'sThe Birth of a Nation), with scenes of a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) recounting a lynching to Patrice and other student activists. If you didn't get the point, the movie ends with real-life scenes from Charlottesville in 2017. And if you did get the point ... well, we could probably all stand to get it again.