One of the Years Best
Ron Stallworth’s memoir is retold with passion and admiration—aptly Lee’s finale reminds us of our current gut-wrenching racial tensions. Be prepared for a history lesson of shock and awe—it’s about time the true story of bigotry is brought to the forefront. Yes, Spike Lee is angry, as we all should be. Through raw video footage, we learn of the atrocities of the ‘hate group’ the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ toward black Americans, Jews, and immigrants—this is not what most of us were taught in history class. Fortunately, Ron Stallworth a black undercover police detective in 1978 had the foresight and courage to save all of his memorabilia from his days as a member of the KKK—yes, he has his official Ku Klux Klan membership card as proof.
Stallworth, was also the first black police officer in Colorado Springs (1978), this intelligent, highly motivated young man assumed responsibility for his own advancement within the force. As a rookie, he asked his commanding officer for a transfer to detective work. Once a detective, in scanning the daily newspaper for potential illegal activities he spots a recruitment ad seeking members to join the Ku Klux Klan. He contacts the Klan by phone, all while pretending to be a white racist extremist, and shortly after that, he’s asked to become a member.
In the film, John David Washington, Denzel’s son plays a convincing Ron. A terrific Adam Driver plays his white colleague Zimmerman, who handles Ron’s in-person appearances. As outrageous as this sounds, Ron Stallworth’s book, “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime,” is based on his nine-month KKK investigation and his numerous calls with David Duke the Grand Wizard of the group.
Shortly after publication in 2014, Hollywood began calling with offers to bring Stallworth’s book to the screen. He patiently waited until his story was in the right hands. QC Entertainment acquired the rights to the book, and following a successful partnership on the film “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw joined QC’s Sean McKittrick and Ray Mansfield to produce the film. They all agreed on one person to bring the personal story to the big screen—Spike Lee.
Myself, having read Stallworth’s incredible and historical book; can say it’s the cornerstone of the film as Lee follows it reasonably close. Although as with all Spike Lee films we are given his signature touch—a much broader and more profound (in your face) sense of the state of affairs. The real-life investigation took place in 1978, Lee and his trio of screenplay writers’ focus on the early 1970s, only two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the then active Black Panther group.
To say that the film is a masterpiece of the culmination of Lee’s life’s work, is not too far from the truth, here through his genius comedic skill he toggles harsh realities with humor. Moreover, via his keen directing skills, garners stellar performances from Washington, Driver, and Topher Grace as David Duke along with a tremendous Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), as a college advocate for Black Power. Lee presents the parallel uprise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Power movement. We are also privy to ‘groovy fashions’ and ‘far out’ dance moves.
Opening with an aerial shot of Vivien Leigh (Scarlet O’Hara) surrounded by dead and wounded soldiers in a scene from “Gone with the Wind” (1939) near the end of the Civil War around 1865. Next, we view black and white news clips of segregation with Alec Baldwin a fictitious (Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard) narrating his disgust of mixing white Americans with black Americans. Lastly just before we meet Ron Stallworth, racist scenes from “Birth of a Nation” (1915) are shown. Lee’s simply, setting the tone for the abhorrent racial slurs that are forthcoming in the film—be prepared this is an uncomfortable film to view, although it’s importance can not be stressed enough in shedding light on racism and conceivably gaining empathy for the atrocities people have been forced to endure.
The casting of John David Washington as Ron is perfect; he’s quick-witted, charming and aggressive when he needs to be. Washington’s a former college American football running back, at the age of nine he appeared in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) as a student in a Harlem classroom, his father played the leading role, since 2015 he’s appeared in the HBO’s “Ballers” as Ricky Jerret. There’s something about his charismatic personality. Whether he’s rolling his eyes as he chats with David Duke, pressing Flip Zimmerman to become more committed to the cause or his boyish ways when pursuing his girlfriend president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and the host to Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael (who had just adopted the name of Kwame Ture).
Adam Driver’s performance as the white Ron in reality is the more dangerous role as he’s Jewish born (although nonpracticing) yet he’s subjected to constant suspicion by the Klan. In a tense scene, he’s locked in the basement with a lunatic Klan member who at gunpoint forces him to take a lie-detector test. On a side note: In Stallworth’s book Flip Zimmerman, is known as Chuck, with no last name. The detective wants complete anonymity—wanting no part of the book or the film.
Lee keeps us on the edge of our seats when the Klan is present; you never know what one of them is going to say or worse yet, what they might do. Depicted as unorganized, unpredictable, and uneducated losers who ‘get off’ on the comradery of hate. During a viewing of the film “Birth of a Nation” which is often viewed by Klan members, they whop and holler whipping themselves into a frenzy—scary stuff. The KKK handshake is ‘outed’ as in the book, along with the stupidity of their leader David Duke, who brags to Ron that he can tell the difference between a black man and white one by the way a black man pronounces certain words.
There’s so much more to this film that will surprise you that’s best kept quiet for now. I urge you to see the film on the big screen with an audience, believe me; you’ll feel a range of emotions.
“BlacKkKlansman” is one of those films that I’ll be viewing again; it’s that excellent and that memorable. The ending live newsreel scenes of 2017 leave a powerful message, nothing can prepare you for the experience, sit back while you’re immersed in real-life videos of today, and perhaps you’ll be moved enough to support the change or better yet, be the change.
Cast: John David Washington (Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Flip Zimmerman), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), Topher Grace (David Duke), Robert John Burke (Chief Bridges), Alec Baldwin(Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard)
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: (based on the memoir by) Ron Stallworth, “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime”
Screenwriters:Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott
Crew: Cinematographer Chayse Irvin, Editor Barry Alexander Brown, Composer Terence Blanchard
Run Time: 2 Hours 15 Minutes
Sarah Knight Adamson© August 10, 2018