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Director Spike Lee has made a career in Hollywood by taking compelling anecdotes, balling them up, dousing them in super glue and bouncing them through the zeitgeist to create timely and often timeless pieces of cinema. In his latest effort, the John David Washington-led “BlacKkKlansman”, Lee spins the tale of real-life former detective Ron Stallworth into a commentary on the country’s current social and political climate.
The film is set in 70s Colorado Springs and begins with Stallworth (John David Washington), an ambitious, black, rookie cop— with pipe dreams of becoming a detective— being assigned menial tasks around the precinct. This all changes when Stallworth is called up to the big leagues by diet racist Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), to go undercover in order to infiltrate a collegiate Black Power organization’s gathering, where prominent civil rights activist Kwame Ture is scheduled to address the crowd. The sting goes off without much of a hitch until Stallworth is dumbstruck by afro’d beauty Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).
Later, Stallworth, now back on desk duty, hatches a plan for another undercover operation. This time, the target is the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth successfully builds a relationship with the chapter’s leaders via telephone conversations and enlists the help of Jewish Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to role play as the personification of Stallworth’s voice-acted raging racist. The operation turns out successfully as Stallworth and Zimmerman’s klansman is able to secure a leadership role in the chapter, as well as a meeting with the Klan’s “National Chairman” David Duke, played by Topher Grace.
Things get hairy when the Klan hatches a terrorist plot on a gathering of the collegiate Black Power group, with the group’s leader, Dumas— with whom the still incognito Stallworth has cultivated a full-blown relationship— as the main target. Stallworth and Zimmerman successfully thwart the plot and take down multiple leaders of the Klan in the process.
Artistically, the film is next to flawless. John David Washington doesn’t miss a beat in this, his major motion picture debut, providing perfect balances of intensity, vulnerability and comedic timing. Driver’s Detective Zimmerman is perhaps the film’s most dynamic character, though. Driver does an excellent job of bringing Zimmerman’s internal conflict to life as he evolves from a stone-faced, by-the-book law enforcer, into an impassioned operative in Stallworth’s master plan. Spike Lee’s direction shines throughout, with carefully placed shots, and seamless interweaving of social commentary— subtle enough to be believable, yet not so subtle that it becomes enigmatic.
However, it is within the light of the underlying context of the film that its blemishes are exposed. The story of BlacKkKlansman is based on the autobiographical book and real-life experiences of Ron Stallworth. Unfortunately, though, what is marketed as “based on a true story” is more accurately described as a dramatization inspired by actual events. As it turns out, Stallworth’s story is a lot less freedom fighter, and a lot more “playing both sides of the fence.” The real-life Ron Stallworth was actually an agent of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) and infiltrated a black radical organization for three years— not one event as the movie portrays. The climax of the film, the thwarted bombing, was entirely fictional, and it is unclear how many other aspects of the film were a result of Lee taking some creative liberty.
Knowing this somewhat softens the impact of an otherwise captivating film. The lack of transparency leaves room for a cloud of doubt that forces the question: How great would the film be if it were marketed as just a piece of historical fiction?