Based on a memoir titled Black Klansman by retired police officer Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman, the a 2018 film from auteur director Spike Lee, will leave you feeling comforted, impassioned, and enraged, by both our country and its characters. Above all else, though, BlacKkKlansman may leave you frustrated by Lee’s unconventional methods and murky politics.
BlacKkKlansman stars John David Washington (yes, the son of Denzel) as Ron Stallworth, a rookie police officer with the Colorado Springs police department. Ron begins his career on desk duty, but early in his tenure, he requests an unprecedented transfer to work undercover. The chief is hesitant to fulfill Ron’s request, but as the first and only black officer in the Colorado Springs PD, out of necessity, Ron is allowed to work his first undercover assignment: infiltrating a local rally for civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), which the department identified as a potential threat.
Undercover—though still using his real name—Ron meets the rally’s organizer and president of Colorado College’s black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Ron and Patrice have immediate, undeniable chemistry. For his work at the rally, Ron is rewarded with a position in the intelligence gathering department. Flipping through the newspaper working in his new position, Ron comes across an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan. On a whim, Ron calls the number and speaks to a member of the local chapter. Working with his new partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Ron and Flip attempt to infiltrate the Klan as Ron Stallworth, a white, Christian man portrayed by Ron over the phone and Flip in person.
Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I can tell you that Lee’s retelling is quite a departure from the memoir and the true story it originates from. Hollywood will always take liberties, but this is an extreme. For one, Ron Stallman’s partner has never revealed his identity, so it’s impossible to extrapolate his background. In the movie, Flip is Jewish, and this is an important story element. This choice is forgivable because it’s minor and reminds us that the Klan sets its sights on all who are not white Christians. But the changes become more heinous as the movie progresses; legitimate acts of terrorism are invented in the name of drama that apparently, according to the screenwriters, was not provided by the memoir. To further the plot, characters are put in situations that make little sense. The entire third act is fabricated and stacks more false endings than you can count.
The writer-director of another one of the year’s most notable films about racism, Sorry to Bother You’s Boots Riley, illustrated the missteps of BlacKkKlansman in an essay. Riley’s essay (which contains movie spoilers) argues that BlacKkKlansman is a pro-cop movie, and the historic changes were made to paint the police in a more favorable light. One detail highlighted by Riley covers another contrived plot thread, the downfall of a racist police officer. This plot point is incongruent with everything that had come before and feels like pure fan service.
Among BlacKkKlansman’s worst sins is its constant need to shift tones. It’s a buddy cop comedy, a blaxploitation film, and a romance movie, but it’s never all of them at once. Instead, Lee cuts from one to the next with no transition. One can imagine a version of BlacKkKlansman that offers a tightly woven movie about racism in America built on the back of strong performances by its leads. Indeed, Washington has enough chemistry with both Harrier and Driver to create one of the year’s best movies if Lee would let him. Instead, we have movie posters literally superimposed on top of the frame while Ron and Patrice discuss blaxploitation. This component is more high school class project than feature film by a renowned director.
Washington and Driver possess a tangible physicality that elevates their performances. This, coupled with the complicated romance between Washington and Harrier is proof that Lee left meat on the bone. At its best, BlacKkKlansman feeds off of these performances and draws a throughline between the resurgence in Klan thanks to D.W. Griffith’s supremely racist The Birth of a Nation and footage from current events. At its worst, BlacKkKlansman leaves you wondering what could’ve been in the hands of another director. Perhaps Riley will be available to direct the next time a story like this comes around.