A black cop infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan and becomes besties with David Duke, all the while gathering intel to foil the hate group. It may sound like an absurdist comedy sketch or a '70s blaxploitation flick, but in 1978, it really happened to Ron Stallworth of the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Now Stallworth's memoir is the basis of a funny, unsettling, never-less-than-compelling film from director Spike Lee, who understands better than most American filmmakers how to access viewers' willingness to be educated via their craving to be entertained. Both a showcase for the actors and for Lee's bravura filmmaking, BlacKkKlansman is, on one level, an irreverent buddy comedy. On another, it's a powerful illustration — with historical examples — of what "white power" means in America, and why that movement and "black power" are not even remotely close to equivalent.
John David Washington (yes, son of Denzel) plays the young Stallworth as a straight arrow with a sly sense of humor and a tight-wound patience for the resistance he meets as the department's first African American officer. His fledgling undercover assignment sends him to a black power rally, where he's affected by the words of Kwame Ture and attracted to a student organizer (a fictional creation played by Laura Harrier).
When he sees the KKK recruiting in his local paper, Ron impulsively answers the ad. A racist rant over the phone earns him an invite to meet the local membership, at which point he needs a white officer to serve as his in-person proxy. The department teams him with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer who has to do his own kind of "passing" to play the role of a vicious bigot.
The film spotlights the camaraderie among the cops, who often find themselves giggling like teen phone pranksters as Ron rings up Duke (Topher Grace) and cultivates a "friendship" by flattering the white nationalist leader's ego. One gets the sense that Duke is starved for articulate conversation. It's clear why when we meet the local Klansmen, whom the film portrays as comically (and tragically) plausible human beings without holding them any less accountable.
Lee uses montage, split-screen and even clips from past films to make it clear that this story, strange as it seems, is part and parcel of the long, strange history of American racism. (One recalls Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where role-playing is also a major theme.) The filmmaker gets a few easy laughs from the audience by placing transparent contemporary allusions in his characters' mouths. ("America would never elect somebody like David Duke!") But he earns those laughs with a searing epilogue clarifying that history's tendency to repeat itself is the film's whole point.
And Lee doesn't allow white viewers who consider themselves allies to get too comfortable. Yes, the movie draws perhaps-too-convenient lines between nasty, racist cops and nice ones. But a memorable shot from the climactic KKK rally tells a more complicated story. As the hooded Klansmen chant, "America first," Lee's camera pans along a line of cooks and waitstaff. The complacent smiles on the faces of the white women clash sharply with the consternation of the black men.
Are these young women actively racist, or blissfully ignorant because racism has never harmed them? Does it even matter? As Flip realizes after some close calls undercover, it's all too easy not to think about racial and ethnic divisions until you have "skin in the game." BlacKkKlansman entertains, all right, but it holds the audience accountable, too.