I used to be a big fan of the work of American film-maker, Spike Lee. Over the past few years, I seem to have missed a lot of his releases, and I got a bit miffed with him for remaking the wonderful Korean film ‘Old Boy’ for no good reason.
When ‘Black KkKlansman’ came along in 2018, I was intrigued to discover it was a true story, and there was a lot of praise from both critics and audiences for this historical take on one policeman’s story. Last week, it was on TV here, so I decided to watch it.
If you don’t know about the real events, they concern the first-ever black policeman to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department, in 1972. Ron Stallworth was a college educated man who sported a large afro hairdo, and had a desire to become a police officer. Most of his colleagues are overtly racist, so the police chief sticks Ron in the boring job of the Records Office, where he is subject to racist abuse and intimidation by many of the white officers.
When he applies to become an undercover detective, that coincides with a visit to the city by black power activist, Stokely Carmichael. The chief sees an opportunity to use Ron to infiltrate Carmichael’s supporters, and he does a good job getting to know them and being accepted by them.
Following this, Ron is reassigned to Intelligence, and cheekily decides to apply to join the Ku Klux Klan, the racist group very active at the time. He does all this over the telephone, but when the local KKK organiser insists on meeting him, he has to get a white colleague to impersonate him. The added difficulty is that his colleague is Jewish, and must hide that fact from the other KKK members he meets.
With no spoilers, that’s the plot.
This is a long film, over two hours forty minutes on the TV version I watched. It covers a deception that leads right up to the then head of the KKK, David Duke, and has much to say about racism in America at the time, in the 21st century, and in an historical context. It uses clips from the film ‘Birth of A Nation’, as well as photos from lynchings and murders of black men in the past, and at times has a documentary feel.
During the scenes when the undercover cops face the danger of being discovered by other KKK members there is genuine tension, and the 1970s setting is very well rendered, with clothes, vehicles, and sets all feeling authentic. Casting is good too, with John David Washington as Ron, Adam Driver as his Jewish undercover colleague, and Michael Buschemi (looking uncannily like his brother Steve) as the third member of the team. Harry Belafonte makes a dignified appearance as Jerome Turner, and Topher Grace is a good choice for David Duke.
I wanted to really like this film. It is an important subject, and we all know that the KKK is still very active today, emboldened by the Trump years.
But, there’s a big BUT.
Parts of the film are played as a comedy. I got the feeling at times that Washington was channelling a young Richard Pryor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is anything remotely amusing about the KKK. And for that reason alone, I was left feeling very disappointed.
But you might like it, so here’s a trailer.