Infiltrating the Organization: BlacKkKlansman Review
Integration in America is a work in progress, and likely will be as long as all of us live. In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth became the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. The movie BlacKkKlansman tells the story of a most interesting investigation he led while he was a part of the force. Stallworth (John David Washington) spends a stint in the records room before he gets an assignment in the undercover division. An early assignment involves him attending a speech at Colorado College given by civil rights advocate and one-time Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to see if Ture has come to incite trouble. There, Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the college's Black Student Union, who lets her disgust for cops known. Without telling her he's in law enforcement, they start dating. While reading the newspaper at his desk, Ron sees an ad calling for recruits to join the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. He calls the number and leaves a message, and soon gets a response from local Klan member Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), who says he'd like to meet Ron.
After getting clearance from his sergeant and his chief to investigate further, Stallworth works with fellow undercover officer Philip "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer who will necessarily pose as Stallworth, who will provide surveillance. Instead of meeting Walter, Flip meets Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), a hardcore member of the chapter sent to root out Jews. Flip convinces Felix that he's as anti-Semitic as he is racist. This gets Flip invited of Klan functions at the home of Felix and his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). Flip applies for Klan membership while waiting for approval. In order to expedite the process, Ron calls Louisiana and speaks to Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who delivers on his promise to process the paperwork ahead of his plans to visit Colorado to speak to the chapter and witness Flip's induction. The Organization, as they prefer to be called, has been planning an act of violence. Flip avoids exposure at many turns, including an assertion by a parolee named Walker (Nicholas Turturro) that Flip is undercover.
BlacKkKlansman, based on Stallworth's account, is the best film Spike Lee has done in a long time. I have admired Lee's fictional joints, such as Do The Right Thing, Clockers, and He Got Game. However, I think Lee speaks and most powerfully best about racial divides and the quest for equal rights when he covers real events, as he does here and in works like Malcolm X and 4 Little Girls. Lee, who also co-wrote the adaptation, does change the time of Stallworth's investigation of the Klan from the late 1970s to the early 1970s, as Richard Nixon ran for re-election. Lee does that to show how entrenched and overt divisive attitudes can be, ending this picture with footage of the 2017 madness in Charlottesville. Yet, Lee shows a generally welcoming attitude among the members of the squad, with officers like Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) providing one of the few exceptions to the welcome. Lee not only brings moments of tension, but also moments of humor, such as Stallworth's face-to-face encounter with Duke. Some of the movie's payoff scenes are just as much fun.
Washington is probably best known for his work on the HBO series Ballers, but the son of Denzel Washington shows he should not be typecast as an athlete, which he pursued professionally before turning to acting. Washington's Stallworth is both smart and wise, never letting others rile him, never tipping his hand in street clothes, yet showing he has his fellow officers' backs when necessary. When he senses Flip is in trouble, Ron creates a diversion so that the Klan members will focus on the trouble he creates. Driver is also very good, a veteran of the force willing to let his younger partner take a leading role in their operation. While Ron has created a back story for Flip, Flip has to improvise, such as the scene where he's at target practice with other Klan members who wonder how he learned to shoot so well. Grace does well in support as Duke, the Organization leader who has his beliefs tested, as does Harrier, the young idealist tested in different ways. Alec Baldwin has a memorable cameo as a white supremacist educator who rationalizes his views, as does Harry Belafonte as an elderly man who meets with Patrice and others and relates a disturbing story from his childhood.
BlacKkKlansman tells the tale of a time where the police discovered a notorious group brazenly recruiting other like-minded and similarly-complected people to their ranks. A young officer creates a deception with the help of a fellow officer and discovers potential trouble from this group. They also discover how much this organization does not, and never will, understand. The misunderstanding began with a phone call from an officer who knew he could not get away with this kind of talk in person.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give BlacKkKlansman 3.5 stars. A most unusual membership application.