There was probably a way to write a review of this movie without spoilers. I could write about Spike Lee’s craft as the director or Denzel Washington’s son (John David Washington) and his performance portraying Ron Stallworth, the black undercover detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Those are stories worth telling but not what I deemed important after seeing the film.
It’s important to note the movie is based on a real-life story and the book “Black Klansman: A Memoir.” That doesn’t mean everything happens exactly as they did in real life and there are some notable differences. None that couldn’t have happened in real life and none that take away from the credibility of the film. No one should fail to learn from the facts of the film because of the existence of the fiction to create a marketable story.
The film begins with battlefield scenes from, “Gone With the Wind” where we see Scarlett O’Hara, scouring a battlefield littered with Confederate soldiers. We then switch to Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard filming a white supremacist PSA and then to Ron Stallworth to the Colorado Springs police force where he aimed to be their first black detective. We see his interview with the Chief of Detectives and a recruitment agent, Mr. Turrentine played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. who indeed delivers his famous phrase from “The Wire.”
After being given a desk assignment where he retrieved files, he was given the assignment to infiltrate a speech by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) to get a feel for the reaction of the local black community and potential for revolution. Kwame was invited by the local college Black Student Union whose President was Patrice Dumas, his fictional love interest played by Laura Harrier. The speech by Kwane (Corey Hawkins) was riveting and should be required watching or reading by today’s black youth.
Back at the police station, Detective Stallworth sees a newspaper advertisement for membership in the Klan and he impulsively calls, leading to him striking up a series of telephone relationships with Klan members including the Grand Wizard David Duke. In order to facilitate in-person meetings, he recruited Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and they were able to infiltrate the Colorado Klan and foil an attempted terrorist attack.
I won’t reveal more of the plot except to say the point of the film is to make you consider how similar the country is today to that time in 1978 when the film was set. Racist attitudes have changed little except that racists have been more accepted and often have no need to worry about hoods and robes. The “secret empire” needs to be secret no longer. We hear a younger David Duke saying, “America First,” which sounds exactly like the statements uttered by right-wing politicians today. The racists of 1978 spoke of blacks and Jews when they thought no one was listening in the same manner as people do proudly (but mostly anonymously) today on the Internet.
The film ended with video clips from 2017 in Charlottesville as we watched crowds of Klan members and affiliated groups like Neo-Nazi’s and skinheads, uniting to display their hatred for others less white. The final scenes are of the Neo-Nazi driver that sped into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, with Donald Trump saying some of the Klan members were, “very fine people.”
There are jokes in the movie but you won’t walk away laughing. You will recognize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of the terms are changing; people act “racially” or exhibit “nationalism.” To some, the very definition of racism has changed to the point where nothing qualifies. When you see this movie, and you should. You’ll recognize racism for what it was then and is now a clear and present danger.
One final note, the Colorado Springs police department seemed more concerned about preventing cross-burning than eradicating the Klan. They eventually disbanded the intelligence team that had infiltrated the Klan, worried about what people might think rather than continue to do good. They ordered all evidence of the operation destroyed. Fortunately, the real Ron Stallworth saved his notes which turned into his book and ultimately this movie. Highly recommended.