'BlacKkKlansman' Is A Blisteringly Funny, Urgent Story Of Race And Identity

Aug 10, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 3:56 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Spike Lee's film "BlacKkKlansman" tells the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs Police Officer who in 1979 successfully infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth is played by John David Washington, who leads an ensemble that includes Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The idea of a black police officer pretending to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan sounds ridiculous - like an old Dave Chappelle sketch turned inside out, except that it really happened. The astonishing circumstances of Ron Stallworth's undercover investigation, as detailed in his 2014 memoir, have now been shaped by the director Spike Lee into a blisteringly funny and urgent new film called "BlacKkKlansman." It's many movies squeezed into one - a tense police procedural, a wacky riff on "Cyrano De Bergerac," a snapshot of the '70s and the parallel rise of white supremacy and black power. But Lee, a fearless chronicler of racial injustice in films like "Do The Right Thing" and "Bamboozled," gives this material a startling coherence. His anger is matched by his discipline.

John David Washington plays Stallworth, who becomes the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department and encounters more than enough racism from some of his colleagues. He eventually works his way into the intelligence department where one day he sees a newspaper ad for the Klan and decides to dial the number. Accidentally using his real name, he convincingly presents himself as a hopeful candidate for the Klan - or the organization, as its members insist on calling it.

In time, the Klan requests a meeting with Stallworth, which presents an obvious logistical challenge. The solution he comes up with is clumsy but surprisingly effective. He'll be Ron Stallworth on the phone while a white detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, will pretend to be Stallworth in person. Zimmerman tackles the job reluctantly - to the point where Stallworth calls him out for not being more personally invested as a Jewish man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKKKLANSMAN")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Well, I'm not risking my life to prevent some rednecks from lighting a couple of sticks on fire.

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) This is the job. What's your problem?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) That's my problem. For you, it's a crusade. For me, it's a job. It's not personal, nor should it be.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Why haven't you bought into this?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Why should I?

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Because you're Jewish, brother - the so-called chosen people. You've been passing for a WASP - white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy. It's what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn't that hatred you've been hearing the Klan say - doesn't that piss you off?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Of course, it does.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Then why you acting like you ain't got skin in the game, brother?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Rookie, that's my [expletive] business.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) It's our business. Now, I'm going to get you your membership card, so you can go to the cross burning and get in deeper with these guys.

CHANG: Naturally, this double-impersonation act could go wrong in any number of ways. And go wrong it does. But Spike Lee, who worked with three other writers on this script, ingeniously placed the material for laughs as well as jolts. In some of the funniest did-this-really-happen moments, Stallworth chats on the phone with a young David Duke, the grand wizard and national director of the Klan. He's played by a terrifically restrained Topher Grace, who makes Duke the most businesslike of buffoons - rambling on and on about the inherent superiority of white men like himself and Stallworth.

Things are less amusing and more dangerous for Zimmerman, who gets away with fooling most of his new Klansmen buddies - except for the hot-tempered Felix, played by the terrific Finnish actor Jasper Paakkonen. At times the redneck-baiting humor feels overdone, in part, because Klansmen are such easy targets. Lee shows them to be stupid, hateful and, for all their macho bluster, pretty ineffectual.

Lee has famously never been one for subtlety or straightforward realism. And he gives "BlacKkKlansman" a playfully didactic structure. He indicts America's own troubling cinematic heritage with clips from "The Birth Of A Nation" and "Gone With The Wind," which he balances out with more appreciative references to blaxploitation classics like "Coffy" and "Superfly." He pushes back against the Klan's racist rhetoric with galvanizing speeches on black resistance from visiting speakers like Jerome Turner, played in a beautiful cameo by Harry Belafonte, and Stokely Carmichael, here going by his adopted African name of Kwame Ture.

Laura Harrier has a key role as a black college activist named Patrice who begins dating Stallworth, unaware that he's a detective. When Patrice refers to cops as pigs, Stallworth's recoils as surely as if she'd used a racist slur. In these moments "BlacKkKlansman" becomes a searingly honest inquiry into the riddles of identity - the personal causes we identify ourselves with, the battles we choose to fight and not to fight. Lee knows that these questions haunt the past but also the present. And he gives the movie a hellishly confrontational finale. You will laugh a lot during "BlacKkKlansman." But when the subject shifts to the resurgence of white nationalism in the Trump era, your laughter may die in your throat.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est? Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa.....

BIANCULLI: ...The co-founder of Sire Records Seymour Stein, who discovered Talking Heads and the Ramones and signed Madonna and Ice-T. He has a new memoir. Also Jim Gavin - creator of the new AMC series "Lodge 49," about a bereaved surfer named Dud who stumbles upon a declining fraternal order like the Elks. Hope you can join us.

Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. We'll end today's show by celebrating a bit of music history. Fifty years ago this week, just four months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., James Brown recorded "Say It Loud." Recording with him in the Los Angeles studio were a group of young people from Compton and Watts. The song stated number one on the R&B singles charts for six weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Uh, your bad self, say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. Say it louder. I'm black, and I'm proud. Some people say we got a lot of malice. Some say it's a lot of nerve. But I say we won't quit moving until we get what we deserve. We've been buked. And we've been scourned. We've been treated bad - talked about as sure as you're born. But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, brother, we can't quit until we get our share.

Say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. Say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. One more time, say it loud. I'm black, I'm proud. I've worked on jobs with my feet and my hands. But all the work I did was for the other man. And now we demands a chance to do things for ourselves. We tired of beating our head against the wall and working for someone else. Say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. Say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.