Some stories are meant for the big screen and some movies are meant for certain directors. Such is the case of the unbelievable true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. That alone is incredibly impressive and a worthwhile story, but that isn’t even the part of Ron Stallworth’s story that is unbelievable. He also infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan and became friends with former Grand Wizard, David Duke. There is only one director that should adapt this story for the screen and that’s Spike Lee. He is one of the greatest filmmakers ever and has created some of the greatest films ever. He is also known for his social commentary, with those same great films carrying a strong and beautiful message of black pride. Ron Stallworth’s story and Spike Lee were a match made in heaven and it showed on screen.
Even though Spike Lee is a legendary filmmaker, he hasn’t been living up to that reputation as of late. He hasn’t had a film garner much box office interest or critical acclaim in a few years. BlacKkKlansman feels like a return to form for the director. At its core, it is an incredibly well made film. A lot of the classic Spike Lee staples are present. There are some great stylized wide shots, good music and a strong message. There also seemed to be more focused storytelling than in some of his more recent work, the adapted story may have helped with that. That focus brought an incredible story to screen in a very compelling way. Lee took a story that was too crazy to believe and leaned into its absurdity while having a bit of fun with it. BlacKkKlansman was a lot funnier than expected and worked very well because the humor was steeped in a ridiculous reality.
Shortly after Ron Stallworth (played well by John David Washington) joins the Colorado police force, he comes into contact with the Black Student Union at a local college. That encounter allowed him to hear Stokely Carmichael speak and meet Patrice, the strong and outspoken leader of the Black Student Union (played beautifully by Laura Harrier). I didn’t gather much about Stallworth and his pride in his blackness previous to this night, but it seemed like this was an awakening for him. This awakening guided him through his time infiltrating the KKK. Stallworth enlisted the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an incredible Adam Driver) to pull this off. Stallworth, who accidentally used his own name, would be Ron Stallworth on the phone and Flip would be Ron Stallworth in person. Together they would create one white man that would join the Klan and get information about what they plan to do. This plan is utterly ridiculous and should never work, and to the film’s (and Lee’s) credit it doesn’t shy away from that. There is plenty of humor throughout the film about this plan and its success. A good example of this is the relationship between Stallworth and David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK (a surprisingly good Topher Grace). The whole tone within these scenes was comical. The fact it was working and the things that Stallworth would get him to say were funny. While that humor did work to cut the tension and was a clever way to present the story, BlacKkKlansman wasn’t all about the humor.
BlacKkKlansman packs a strong punch with its message. Spike Lee and his co-writers (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabionwitz and Kevin Willmott) created a script that effectively told Ron Stallworth’s story while delivering a modern message. It was startling at times how well this story plays in modern times, even though it took place in the 70’s. The corrupt, racist police officers, the police brutality and the coded (sometimes overtly racist) language could all be things set in a film from 2018. The speech from Kwame Ture in the first act was absolutely incredible. The message plays effectively now and Spike shot it perfectly. He let the speech run without breaks for several minutes. You almost forget that you are watching a film; it feels more like you’re there with him as he gives the speech. This makes that whole sequence incredibly effective and memorable. That can also be said about the film as a whole. This story felt more like one about being proud of your blackness and that there really isn’t much that separates us from each other. If we can see past our silly preconceived notions, then we would have a lot less hate. This was weaved all throughout the film beautifully and it was quite effective.
Directorially, BlacKkKlansman is incredible. The filmmaking is solid throughout but what take it over the top are the performances, especially the leads. John David Washington and Adam Driver were both great. Washington did a lot of the heavy lifting in the film and held up well. Transforming his voice was effective both for the role and for distancing himself from his dad (Denzel Washington) who he resembles in that way. When watching his performance you can easily put that aside and get lost in what is most certainly a star making performance. For my money, Adam Driver gave the most compelling performance. Driver is a phenomenal performer and consistently delivers. In BlacKkKlansman he takes supporting role and turns it into something that feels much bigger. The nuance of his Jewish heritage isn’t played into all that much in the script, but Driver brings it much more life and that adds even more depth to the film. Laura Harrier also delivers a compelling performance. In a film that didn’t make a lot of room for her, she shined and gave us something that was both strong and memorable. The most surprising of the performances has to be Topher Grace as David Duke. Just the idea of that seems ridiculous but he pulls it off in a believable way. These performances rounded out the film and elevated it to an even higher level.
BlacKkKlansman is a must see film, even in a year that is full of socially conscious films. The story alone is worth the watch but also one of the greatest directors we’ve ever seen is operating at his highest level. As is the cast, who are delivering incredible performances from start to finish. However, this film’s worth can be summed up to one sequence towards the end of the film. There is a Klan meeting and a Black Student Council meeting taking place at the same time. Spike juxtaposes these meetings perfectly. We go back and forth from each meeting, one initiating new members, the other retelling a horrifying story of a lynching he witnessed. At times the meetings are shown side by side and we are forced to compare these meetings and take inventory of what is going on. It is an absolutely beautiful piece of filmmaking that I am not doing justice at all, but it’s also the message of the film wrapped up into one sequence. This sequence alone is worth the watch, but the whole film is great and definitely worth your time.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier & Topher Grace
Release Date: August 10th
Runtime: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Image Credit: Imdb via Focus Features