Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much if a movie is based on a true story or has sprung fully from the imagination of the screenwriter.
But in the case of Spike Lee’s searing, electric and sometimes flat-out funny “BlacKkKlansman,” knowing we’re seeing a dramatization of real-life events definitely helps — because if this were pure fiction, it would just seem too unbelievable.
A black cop with the Colorado Springs Police Dept. in the 1970s infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a rabid racist and anti-Semite. Wait, WHAT?
“BlacKkKlansman” is indeed based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective for the Colorado Springs Dept., who saw a recruitment ad for the KKK in the local newspaper, picked up the phone — and, using his real name, posed as a hate-spewing racist who loathed everyone who wasn’t from “pure white Aryan blood.”
John David Washington plays the smart, ambitious, inexperienced, risk-taking Stallworth, and it is an immensely entertaining and powerful performance. Adam Driver is Stallworth’s new partner, Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop who plays Stallworth-the-racist for in-person meetings with the local Klan buffoons, one of whom actually tries to strap Stallworth to a “Jew detector” polygraph in order to find out if Stallworth is telling the truth.
So. We’ve got a white cop impersonating a black cop impersonating a white supremacist, and if you think that leads to some sticky situations, well there you have it.
“BlacKkKlansman” kicks off with Stallworth joining the department and finding himself relegated to working behind a counter, retrieving case files for senior officers. He finally has the chance to get out in the field when he’s told to go undercover at a student rally featuring the former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, who has changed his name to Kwame Ture. The cops want to hear what Carmichael is telling the students. Is he inciting them to violent acts?
Before Ron even enters the rally, he meets and almost instantly falls for Patrice (Laura Harrier), a deeply committed activist and the leader of the Colorado College Black Union, who doesn’t know he’s a cop.
Soon thereafter, Ron makes that phone call to the local KKK and befriends the chapter leader, and eventually even becomes telephone pals with the Klan’s national leader, the young and utterly despicable David Duke (Topher Grace.)
When Ron is infiltrating the KKK, he’s creating a false narrative. When Ron is romancing Patrice, he’s creating a false narrative of a different sort. If the Klan finds out he’s a cop, he could be killed. If or when he finally gets around to telling Patrice the truth, he knows she’ll probably be out the door in a flash.
Given the red-hot raging hate rhetoric spewed by members of the Klan (and in some cases, their spouses), and their plans to commit a terrorist act against innocent civilians, “BlacKkKlansman” is filled with tense, gut-churning moments. We’d like to say it’s hard to believe certain people were so ignorant and so monstrous back in the 1970s — if there wasn’t so much evidence nothing has changed in the 2010s.
Director and co-writer Lee wisely sprinkles in scenes of great camaraderie in the police station (Robert John Burke’s Chief Bridges wouldn’t tell you he’s the most enlightened person ever, but he treats Stallworth with fairness and respect), welcome moments of levity, often at the deserved expense of the most clueless Klan idiots, and some lovely moments between Ron and Patrice.
Washington and Driver are razor-sharp playing off one another. Topher Grace, as likable an actor as you’ll find, is brilliant playing a guy who is handsome and charming (in certain circles) but is an absolute garbage human being with no soul.
Lee keeps the multiple storylines humming at a brisk pace, while the soundtrack pops with great period-piece tunes such as “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.
The film is bookended by two sequences that are not directly connected and yet are deeply bound to the main story. One segment is set decades ago; the other is raw and fresh, and we’ll leave it at that.
“BlacKkKlansman” is one of Spike Lee’s most accomplished films in recent memory, and one of the best films of 2018.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Spike Lee and written by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, based on the book by Ron Stallworth. Rated R (for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references). Running time: 135 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.