Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman recounts a true story so unbelievable it is as if the events happened for the sole purpose of an eventual cinematic adaptation. Lee is undoubtedly matched perfectly with the remarkable tale of a Black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan.
In the film, we follow Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a young and eager rookie who manages to infiltrate the KKK with the necessary help of a white undercover cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). During the investigation, Zimmerman poses as Stallworth during the in-person interactions, while Stallworth communicates with the KKK members and the notorious David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone. Lee balances the absurd nature of the whole situation with considerable thought given the dangers the KKK actually pose, especially when stupidity is in the mix. It is an overwhelmingly difficult balancing act and Lee nails it.
That being said, Stallworth is seemingly one-dimensional. We are given a few details about him like he has an interest in martial arts and is a fan of Blaxploitation films. He perhaps even fancies himself to be like the men who lead in those movies. However, Lee doesn’t utilize those insights about the character in the actual story, which leaves us with a shallow understanding of him. We also have a shaky understanding of what drives him to take on this particular investigation. He is a cop on a mission but strangely seems indifferent to the plight of Black people. It is mentioned once that his upbringing has something to do with that, but we never dig deeper. Simply put, Stallworth is passive. He does firmly believe in his work as a police officer, but he never looks inward.
It is Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas who pushes Stallworth to examine his position in this world as a Black man. Lee hints at an interesting character exploration but we never fully go there. Despite these flaws, Washington’s performance keeps you engaged, and makes you forget that Stallworth is not particularly well-defined. A sign of a talented actor is one that manages to outshine glaring flaws in their character‘s development. Washington is clearly a talented actor.
John David Washington is a natural. His charisma radiates off of him in every scene, and he does not make you feel like you are watching a young Denzel Washington. He may look and sound like him, but he is his own actor. Stallworth is an intriguing character; he possesses an intense passion for his job and for justice and is rather eccentric, but Lee does not provide audiences with an in-depth look into who Stallworth is – perhaps he was unable to take artistic liberties in portraying the real-life cop.
As for the rest of the cast, everyone performs their parts well. Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, the man who poses as Stallworth in person. His character is motivated, like Stallworth, by enforcing law and order. However, there is an added layer of his conflicted relationship with his Jewish ancestry, and as Stallworth makes note, Zimmerman does have “skin in the game.” Stallworth and Zimmerman are foils for each other and both have abrasive relationships with their identities- Stallworth with his race and Zimmerman with his ethnic/religious background. This subplot with Zimmerman confronting anti-Semitism, assimilation, and passing is Lee’s way of making the themes of the film not exclusively about Black people. Unlike his previous films, this allows his film to be more accessible to audiences who may be under the impression that they are exempt from the struggle or that it doesn’t affect them. Lee’s focus on the police operation and the implications of the situation doesn’t leave much room to explore the complex nature of the two leads.
There is no doubt that Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a masterfully crafted film and despite some decisions with the characters, it is difficult to find anything to criticize. Lee is rather disciplined in his filmmaking and he nails the tonal balance, pacing and time spent on various aspects of the investigation, and the people within it. However, there are various aspects of the film that could be improved upon or reconsidered during the filming process. For instance, it’s clear that Harrier’s Dumas was modeled after iconic and famous Black feminist activists of the Civil Rights era. Much like Zimmerman, Dumas acts as a foil to Stallworth, revealing some truths he was previously blind to. Harrier does a fine job in the role, but I believe the role could have been more effective with a dark-skinned Black woman.
It is not a secret that Hollywood as a whole has an issue with colorism and often favours lighter skinned Black and biracial women in roles opposite Black men leads. It is particularly troubling in BlacKkKlansman as Dumas is the only notable Black woman in the film. The issue is exacerbated with the presence of dark-skinned actress, Damaris Lewis who plays Odetta – Dumas’ friend and fellow activist. With Odetta standing next to Dumas in some scenes, it becomes a glaring issue that Lee should have been more sensitive to. There is a perfectly fine dark-skinned actress present who could have been elevated with this role; especially as the character is a fictional creation, there was no risk of being inaccurate to the real-life story.
BlacKkKlansman speaks to a systemic illness that continues to fester in the United States of America. Lee’s portrayal of the discrimination, violence and the trauma inflicted on Black people is not subtle or nuanced. He lays it all out there and doesn’t shy from pointing a finger at the ills of the nation through Dumas and the civil rights activists. This is most notable through the powerful speeches of Kwame Ture and Jerome Turner, portrayed by Corey Hawkins and Harry Belafonte, respectively. With this, Lee is illustrating how the Civil Rights movement seeks to restore humanity and it is their lives they fight for.
As for the oppressors, Lee does not give the KKK members nuance and some may argue that the aggressive and dangerous hatred should be explored, but Lee illustrates that such hatred cannot be justified or tolerated. There is an absurdity to how the KKK operates but Lee never misses a beat to point out the insidious nature of the KKK and the many platforms they utilize to spread their rhetoric. He even deploys film history to back up his assessment of how the KKK operates on many levels by reminding us of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation. BlacKkKlansman is the perfect response to that abhorrent propaganda piece that galvanized people’s hatred of Black people. Lee focuses your attention on how the KKK and men like David Duke seek to normalize their hatred. It cannot be allowed, it cannot be tolerated.
BlacKkKlansman is perhaps is one of Lee’s best films. It is a clear and determined film that addresses a topic that Lee is passionate about and has dedicated much of his career to. The story of a Black cop successfully infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan is an impressive story in its own right, but Lee goes the extra mile to provide us a funny and complex portrait of the 1970s, which is very reflective of today’s society. It will entertain, educate, inspire and remind you to stay awake. Do not turn a blind eye to hatred, fight back.