Published on August 16th, 2018 | by Dan Nicholls



Spike Lee is back with one of his best film in years, the sort of true story of Ron Stallworth and the Ku Klux Klan.

The fascinating case of Detective Ron Stallworth in 1970s Colorado is no exception to the rule that truth is stranger than fiction. In this movie, the bones of Stallworth’s true story remain rigid even as co-screenwriter/director Spike Lee’s dramatic flourishes and narrative embellishments elevate us to a different plane. That isn’t criticism – it’s an acknowledgement. Because what Lee has done with the perfectly titled BlacKkKlansman stands in line with the best of the filmmaker’s top works. It’s a story as old as time and a wakeup call for the present. The film is nothing short of essential viewing.

We are introduced to young, black Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) as a bushy tailed recruit for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Immediate assignment to the doldrums of the archives division does little to fuel his spirit, but he makes his own opportunities to fulfill his potential by pushing his superiors to notice his unique and advantageous individualism. He first goes undercover at a students’ union speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, best known for his portrayal of Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton) where he meets the alluring and powerful Patrice (Laura Harrier). Stallworth is smitten and emboldened simultaneously. The next day, he dials in to a newspaper classified ad from none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

Incredulously, Stallworth acts the part of a racist white man well enough over the phone to warrant an in-person invite to join the local KKK chapter. Fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish, is enlisted to be the physical Ron Stallworth. Real Stallworth and Flip-Stallworth together form a composite agent who infiltrates the deepest chapters of the worst kind of domestic terrorist scum — up to and including infamous KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (played here by Topher Grace).

To be dubbed as a Spike Lee joint, “based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t” is a dubious honor unique to BlacKkKlansman itself. This distinction isn’t without merit, as Lee’s direction and pointed commentary prove to be as sharp as ever. There are some uneven moments in the pacing that could have benefitted from a more judicious edit but even those few spots provide enough character and emotional development so as to not feel like a burden on an otherwise zippy narrative thrust.

In front of the sure hand of Spike Lee’s prowess is his talented cast shepherded by Washington and Driver. Character actors flesh out the ridiculous and the dangerous individuals populating this volatile landscape with a supporting cast that includes Michael Buscemi, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Harry Belafonte. The score by Lee stalwart Terence Blanchard is of particular note and so far ranks with the year’s best original feature film compositions.

One can’t discuss BlacKkKlansman without making note of its raw and heavy-hitting coda featuring footage of the 2017 white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, VA that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. The film is dedicated to her and its final moments underline the devastating moral of Stallworth’s tale to an unforgettable and sobering point. There is no doubt as to the filmmakers’ decision to accentuate parallels with the present and past “America first” nationalism mantras of an ugly, racist USA.

Decades from now there will almost certainly be no doubt towards BlacKkKlansman’s place as a timeless storytelling anthem of its moment. Its social power will outweigh its filmmaking reverence but that power will result in a sustained cultural footprint for a long time to come. Spike hasn’t been this smooth, confident, and cool in a dozen years. There’s no mistaking this as a necessary viewing experience of 2018.

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is a Vancouver-based, lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. @dannicholls

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