August 27, 2018 – Based on the 2014 book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth which details Stallworth's own experiences as a black undercover cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1979.
The amazing thing about this story is that Stallworth (played in the film by John David Washington of “Monsters and Men”) is black, but he and fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) managed to pull off the deception, with Zimmerman impersonating Stallworth in face-to-face meetings with Klansmen, while Stallworth spoke to Klansmen, including the head of the KKK, David Duke, via phone.
Director Spike Lee (“Inside Job”) pointedly arranged to release this film on the one-year anniversary of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The film has numerous pointed reminders about current events that mirror these past events from nearly 40 years ago, such as KKK references to “make America great again,” “America First,” talk of an impending race war, resentment of blacks and Jews in the media and antipathy towards immigrants.
If you hadn't noticed the rise of white supremacy in the U.S. in recent years, with public figures like President Donald Trump and his White House advisor Steve Bannon leading the way, this film highlights those historical parallels. It also highlights the role of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” in reviving the Klan and perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes.
The movie opens and ends with newsreel-type footage of white supremacy events and speeches, including an opening speech from an old school pro-segregation speaker played by Alec Baldwin. It ends with footage of James Alex Fields Jr. mowing down anti-racist protesters with his car in Charlotsville, and a tribute to the woman he killed, Heather Danielle Heyer.
Stallworth, the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force, jumps at the chance to escape desk duty to work undercover at a rally featuring speaker Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael). Stallworth is immediately attracted to Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Harrier of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) the president of the black student union at Colorado College, who had arranged for Ture's appearance.
Stallworth is clearly moved by Ture's speech. He falls in love with Dumas, but she views all police as enemies, including Stallworth, even after he saves her life. The conflict that Stallworth feels as a cop, hated by blacks, and as a black man who himself is harassed and even handcuffed by his fellow officers, is at the center of this amazing, highly relevant story.
Undercover cop Flip Zimmeraman, who helps Stallworth infiltrate the KKK, has his own conflicts. Though born Jewish, Zimmerman had never thought much about his heritage until he comes face to face with the violent anti-Semitism of the members of the KKK. In one of the film's most striking moments, Stallworth comes face to face with Zimmerman at a KKK rally where Zimmerman is being formally inducted into the KKK and Stallworth is providing security for David Duke.
Actor, singer and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte appears in the film as a civil rights activist named Jerome Turner giving a harrowing account of the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 by a racist mob in Texas (accompanied by photos from that horrifying event). This scene is juxtaposed with the KKK ceremony celebrating the beliefs that got Washington killed.
The movie's climax has to do with a racially motivated bombing by the KKK, using explosives stolen from a U.S. military base. Two KKK members at the time worked in high level military jobs at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which is headquartered near Colorado Springs. They are exposed through Stallworth's investigation. Patrice Dumas is a target of the bombers.
As serious as the subject matter is, the film features quite a bit of humor, too, with Stallworth shocking Duke (played by Topher Grace of “Interstellar,” while the real David Duke appears in news footage later in the film) in a phone conversation where he reveals how he duped Duke and the other local Klan members. Stallworth also enjoys a moment when he arranges to have his photograph taken with Duke, who is immediately angered at being manipulated. The Polaroid photo is snapped by Zimmerman, pretending to be the white version of Stallworth.
The acting is superb by Washington (Denzel Washington's son) Adam Driver, Patrice Dumas and the rest of the cast. There is some inventive camera work and editing by Chayse Irvin and Barry Alexander Brown respectively using superimposed images and intercutting of related scenes to build a kind of side-by-side comparison of the black experience and the white experience in America. This is one of the best films in director Spike Lee's long and storied career. This film rates an A.
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