To be the first minority in a majority space is a harrowing experience, and it is no less so for Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington). Based on the true story of how the first Black detective in the Colorado Springs PD hobbled the KKK by becoming a member, BlacKkKlansman is a masterpiece and standout among Spike Lee’s career.
We meet Stallworth looking like a Blaxploitation throwback with a perfect afro and polyester suit as he’s enduring an interview to test if he has the ability to be the “Jackie Robinson” of the Colorado Springs PD. He is questioned if he can turn the other cheek when, not if, his fellow officers call him the N-word. His superiors have clearly forgotten that Jackie Robinson once said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) insists Stallworth will have the full support of the department yet when he is antagonized by his fellow officers the promised support evaporates. Once the investigation of the KKK is approved Chief Bridges is quick to tell Stallworth, “The weight of this is going to be on you and you alone.”
Stallworth’s first assignment is to infiltrate the Black Student Union and monitor them. While undercover, he strikes up a friendship with the president of the BSU, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). As the Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael (portrayed by Corey Hawkins) speaks at a meeting we see the reaction of those in crowd in extreme close-up, materializing from black background, daring the viewer to accept their humanity. The viewer is also challenged to decolonize their mind as Stallworth struggles with the dissonance this double-consciousness creates.
Realizing the BSU does not pose any imminent or physical threat, Stallworth pitches the investigation of the local KKK chapter. He is able to fool not just the locals but also the grand wizard David Duke, who falls for his King’s English and white cultural references. Stallworth gains so much trust with Duke that he is eventually invited to take over the local chapter. He learns about their plans to move away from their violent past, to be seen as more sophisticated, mainstream, and break into politics so they can “take our country back.”
Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), a local KKK member, is your typical hostile, racist, holocaust denier who begrudgingly admits that Black people are the best dancers. He’s the bloodthirsty working class man that most make fun of, but who very clearly understands the drives and desires of those who join the KKK. He is the unsophisticated image Duke is seeking to shed, but he is popular and perceptive, picking up on something not being quite right with Stallworth.
Unlike many stories on racism, true or imagined, BlacKkKlansman pulls back the veil on many of the dynamics within the KKK. Including very pointedly dealing with the role of white women and their complicity. Not only are white women shown supporting their white male relatives, making sandwiches and applauding at Klan meetings, they are just as bloodthirsty in their hate. There is an added desire to prove themselves to the men around them. This differs from many films and television shows where white women are often portrayed as innocent. Allison Williams, who played Rose in Get Out has spoken about this phenomenon of innocence being projected onto her very clearly villainous character.
In another brilliant turn, BlacKkKlansman isn’t only about Stallworth’s inner conflict, but also the discord and privilege his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) must confront within himself. Zimmerman portrays Stallworth when face to face with the KKK and has to be convinced by Stallworth to care about the importance of the investigation. When asked why he seems so disconnected, Zimmerman is made to face the fact that he’s been able to “pass” as white rather than Jewish.
There are scenes that draw parallels between the thought and ideology of the police and that of the KKK. This shouldn’t be shocking as a portion of the history of policing stems from slave patrols that roamed southern states and later all states and territories as Fugitive Slave Laws spread. Another powerful scene clearly illustrates the difference between calls for “white power” and calls for “Black power”.
Stallworth believes he can create the change from the inside, but Patrice disagrees that this is at all possible. The film does not attempt to provide an answer for either and I find myself being reminded of the famous Audre Lorde quote, “For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
BlacKkKlansman draws clear parallels between the past and the present--including added footage of Charlottesville, Trump’s response, and David Duke’s support of Trump-- while complicating the narratives we are used to. Brought together by impeccable performances and beautiful shots, Spike Lee delivers an incredibly strong and award worthy film. While there are many funny moments sprinkled throughout this Jordan Peele produced piece, this is not a comedy. Lee is known for many things, subtlety not being one of them, but his tradition of being of strong, loud, and plain spoken is well served here. The ultimate goal of racism is death and there is nothing subtle about that.