You've Got No Skin in This Game
Any time Spike Lee does a movie, it's an event; he's one of the few filmmakers who can actually be called a "stylist" (along with Spielberg, Scorsese, and a handful of others), who even as he explores the story-telling form, advances film-language, expands the vocabulary and moves the art forward, stylistically, artistically, and in the form of content and how it can be effectively communicated to an audience.
His new film, BlacKkKlansman—based on a true story (or, as expressed in the film, "this joint is based on some for real, for real shit") tells the story of Ron Stallworth (played in the film by John David Washington, son of Denzel) who, working as the "first black recruit" in the Colorado Springs police department, decides to investigate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—or, as it was preferred to be called internally, "The Organization" or "The Secret Society" (all in the interest of removing any "stigma" that might be associated with white supremacy or Neo-Nazi's of the past and selling bigotry and racism as inoffensively as white bread).
Now, how would a black officer do that, specifically? Well, it turns out, it takes a village, and making sure that you're targeting village idiots.
After Lee does some priming back-story for the youngsters—in the form of Alec Baldwin portraying a racist cleric making a propaganda film (for comedic effect, we get the out-takes) against a projected backdrop of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation—we see young Stallworth—his 'fro is perfect—going to a job interview at the Colorado Springs precinct, where he is being considered as its first black officer, a position he is warned, that will make him the district's Jackie Robinson, breaking barriers but also having to endure the resistance of his fellow officers ("Do you really think a police officer would call me that?" he asks, rather naively, in front of dumbfounded interviewers).
Well, he's a perfect candidate, a credit to his race. The thing is, the duties for the barrier-breaking first black officer is to work in the basement records department fishing for files on demand. As he tells his captain (Robert John Burke) this is not what he signed up for.
Then, a breakthrough: he's asked to go undercover at a speech given by radical Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), presented by the Colorado Black Student Union. See who's there, find out what the speech is, see if Carmichael, who was with the Black Panthers, is going to be stirring up any trouble in town. Stallworth will be the plant—as he's the only black officer—with the operation to be run by two other undercover cops: Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi, and, yeah, he's just like his brother) and "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver). They wire Stallworth up for sound and monitor his activities, including chatting up the head of BSU, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, from Spiderman: Homecoming), all in the interest of research, of course.
Patrice and Carmichael get roughed up after the speech, when she and Stallworth hook up at a bar later, and he asks her enough questions that she starts to suspect that he's a cop—"pig" is her word, and he tells her he doesn't use that term. But, he's clearly interested in her and she in him—it's too bad that this is the part of the story that's completely fictional, but it does give Lee a chance to openly contrast the merits of changing "the system" from within and without, using Ron and Patrice for point-counter-point.
His jaunt undercover lands him a promotion to detective, where he gets to decide what he wants to investigate—he doesn't want to do the drug detail—but a recruiting ad in the local paper for the KKK gets his attention. He calls it, gets a voice-mail, leaves a message. He gets a reply about joining "The Organization," to which he expresses enthusiasm using racial slurs and his fear that his sister is dating his sister and his revulsion at the man "touching her pure lily-white body." That sells him to the recruiter.One little problem: Ron makes a rookie mistake on the phone call by giving the guy his real name. Since Ron is (ya know) "black" there is the distinct possibility (not certain, though) that the Kluxers might suspect something suspicious if he actually goes to one of the meetings himself. So, the police force decides to put its collective head together and decide that a white detective should maybe go in his place, posing as Ron. In a line that evoked the biggest laugh in the theater, Ron says "With the right white man, anything is possible!"
It's decided that detective Flip will be Ron at the face-to-face meeting, as he has the closest sounding voice to Ron (Jimmy Creek, frankly, sounds like Steve Buscemi!). That has its own potential danger, even for a white guy—Flip is Jewish. But, then, whoever they pick would probably have something about them to offend the KKK. As Flip-Ron gets indoctrinated amid the misfits making up the small Klan chapter, Ron-Ron steps up his game, keeping Flip surveilled during his encounters, and keeping in touch with The Organization, developing a phone-relationship with Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Between the work of the two "Stallworth brothers," they raise their creation's prominence in the KKK, to the point where "Ron Stallworth" is in line to become the local chapter's next leader.
Things come to a climax when Duke comes to Colorado Springs to meet "the boys in the hoods" while the chapter plans to bomb another meeting of the Student Union. And, as if there isn't enough going on, Ron-Ron is picked by his boss for the job of protecting Duke while he's in Colorado Springs. Why any police captain in their right mind would do that is one of the biggest "Oh, Really?" moments in the film.
The thing is...it really happened that way.
This is one of the least mannered films in Lee's career. It's as if the absurdity of the situation allows him to let loose of the clasped-tight reins that he usually keeps on his films. Maybe it's the setting or the time-frame, as he and cinematographer Chayse Irvin use a 70's pallet and some of the forms of 70's blax-ploitation films (split-screens, anyone?) to evoke the era. There's an almost Brooksian verve in the presentation of Ron-Ron on the phone, contrasted with the constant tension of Flip-Ron at his meetings. The KKK are never shown as less than dangerous, but concurrently shown as less than organized and structured, like a glorified Scout troop without a den-Mother.But, loose as it might be, it still comes with a strategically designed "all-stories-come-together" climax that is as deft as anything Lee has made in the past, where stakes are high, and resolutions are not as easy as they may appear. And, once again, he caps it with a coda that easily transitions to current affairs, set to an amazing rendition of "Mary, Don't You Weep"—by Prince—that moves and reverberates long after leaving the theater.
Rest in Power, indeed.
BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival.