Bradford, West Yorkshire, ENGLAND – Ron Stallworth was the first African American man to join the Colorado Springs police force, and director Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman details his undercover investigation into the Ku Klux Klan.
In the movie, Ron’s (John David Washington) investigation begins on a whim as he calls the Klan after seeing their number blatantly available in the phone book. This then unintentionally escalates to a meeting with the Klan, which a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) has to attend in Ron’s place.
The subplots developed in parallel to this whacky investigation elevate this movie to having a greater meaning. Ron begins a relationship with an activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), which shows an alternate perspective on the empowerment of black people in America. Patrice refuses to cooperate with the system that oppresses her people while Ron seeks to reform the system from inside.
The depiction of not only this ideological debate but the way a couple can fall in love despite such differences is engaging and emotionally touching.
Flip also has a weighty emotional arc. Only when he has to actively deny his Judaism, does he realize he has been hiding this essential part of his identity.
Through learning to take pride in his faith, he no longer tolerates discrimination in the police force. He goes from passively accepting police brutality from a man on the force, to actively using a wire to get him caught.
BlacKkKlansman also does not shy away from the skin-crawling realities of the members of the KKK’s emotions. Initially the leader of the Colorado Springs faction is Walter (Brian Eggold) who, in comparison to his successor, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), is shown to be compassionate and understanding to new members. There isn’t clean-cut vilification.
Felix, though, has an eerie scene in which he spoons with his wife, reflecting on their dreams of killing African Americans. It is interesting to see how antagonists could twist such awful things into romantic dreams.
The emotional impact of the movie was deepened by the raw realism that the costumes, scenery and camera angles delivered. The beautiful cinematography immersed the viewer in the racial plight of 1979 and the touching acting conveyed the popular discomfort felt by African Americans of the time.
To me the most well-shot scene was one in which Ron arrives at a field the KKK has just used for target practice and the music builds the tension to the eventual climax of seeing the targets, which have been fashioned into stereotypes of African Americans.
The movie was still on the whole uplifting. In addition to the well-delivered romantic subplot, there were also touches of humor. A seemingly jarring scene – Felix interrogating Flip to discover if he is Jewish or not – is softened by the way Flip comically switches the subject onto circumcision.
A scene with David Duke (Topher Grace) further adds an element of humor to the movie as Ron constantly bests him with tongue-in-cheek comments, especially in his final scene when Ron reveals his identity.
This comic scene, however, follows the news that the investigation will not be allowed to continue. Ultimately the police force does not prioritize the attacks on these marginalized communities. This was a compelling touch, because it added realism to the optimism.
But ending BlacKkKlansman’s narrative with the burning of a cross seemed to make the movie’s feeling of success sink below bittersweet. It put a crack in the film’s message – the montage of modern events that followed shattered the subtlety of the prior social commentary.
Unlike other historical movies attempting to portray social criticism, BlacKkKlansman did not make sweeping generalizations until this disjointed tonal shift at the very end.
Aside from this small flaw, this movie provides valuable insight. I highly recommend BlacKkKlansman, an interesting and informative story brought to life in an emotive and entertaining way.
Hanna Johal is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.