An African-American police detective in 1970s Colorado Springs fights for acceptance at work while infiltrating the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with help from his Jewish partner. Will he win the affection of a Colorado College activist and foil the KKK’s violent schemes? Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman (2018) was written and directed by Spike Lee, et al. While entertaining, it jettisons historical accuracy to score contemporary political points.
BlacKkKlansman was inspired by the book Black Klansman (2014) by Ron Stallworth. Stallworth was a police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who in 1979 responded to an ad in the newspaper looking to start a local branch of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. With the help of a white officer posing as Stallworth at meetings, he successfully infiltrated the Klan for nine months. The Colorado Springs PD shut down the investigation after Stallworth was asked to lead the chapter, fearing word would get out that the police department had Klan affiliations.
Aside from a few incidents, like Stallworth speaking to David Duke (Grand Wizard of the KKKK) and having his picture taken with him, that’s where the comparison parts ways. It turns out “based on a true story” is really “inspired by true events.” The writers took many creative liberties to forward a cinematic narrative and spoon feed the audience an overtly political message.
Attacks on the film’s accuracy have come from many corners. Sorry to Bother You (2018) director Boots Riley criticized Spike Lee for allegedly ..er.. whitewashing Ron Stallworth, turning him into a hero and downplaying his infiltration of black student organizations. “It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression,” he argued.
For his part, Spike Lee shrugged off any criticism about the historical accuracy of the film. He told SFGate, “There isn’t a film that’s been made in the history of cinema where there hasn’t been some embellishment. The title doesn’t say, ‘This is based on a true story.’ The title says, ‘This is based on for real, for real s—.’”
The problem with the film’s accuracy isn’t related to its entertainment value. There are plenty of entertaining and well-made films loosely based on real events (like The Nice Guys). The question is how much revisionism can audiences tolerate at the service of an overtly political message? BlacKkKlansman could’ve simply been a dark comedy about a weird and incredible event in the history of U.S. law enforcement. Instead, it tried to make clear cut parallels between historic racism in the U.S., modern hate groups, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
If Spike Lee wanted to make a movie about racism in the 1970s and draw parallels to contemporary politics, why not dramatize the 1979 Greensboro massacre, in which KKK and American Nazi Party members killed five communist protesters? That parallels the 2017 riot in Charlottesville much more closely than anything that happened during Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the KKKK in Colorado Springs.
Was Spike Lee just trying to make parallels between racism in the 1970s and racism in the 2010s? Because he does that. A lot. He beats the audience over the head with it. Or is he criticizing identity politics as a whole by making a side by side comparison of black power activists and white power activists?
I got the impression the film’s message was that standing around yelling at each other and threatening violence is not the way forward. At one point a jump cut shows both groups shouting their respective slogans (“black power!” and “white power!”). This is contrasted with the main character’s chummy relationship with coworkers of different backgrounds. It took the cooperation of all members of the police department to foil the KKK’s plot and root out a racist cop in their midst. This message will likely resonate with mainstream audiences but annoy activists like Boots Riley.
Overall, BlacKkKlansman had its moments but was a little too on the nose for my tastes. The acting among the lead cast was decent. John David Washington and Laura Harrier have some on-screen chemistry, but their relationship comes off as strictly Platonic. Topher Grace stole the show as race huckster David Duke. Steve Buscemi’s brother, Michael, gives a surprise performance as Ron Stallworth’s third wheel. I have a feeling who the viewer voted for in the 2016 presidential election will predict whether they like or hate this film.