Ron Stallworth was an undercover detective in the Colorado Springs police department in the Seventies, who by successfully infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, unhooded a band of violent racists. It took some doing because Stallworth was black.
Spike Lee’s new film, which tells this intriguing true story and is probably best described as an angry comedy, was given a reception at the Cannes Film Festival last night that in truth was more respectful than rapturous.
Lee has never been known for the subtlety of his film-making and his righteous contempt for the racial intolerance that still scars the United States, while understandable enough, undermines his narrative.
Stallworth infiltrates the KKK by proclaiming himself a raging anti-Semite while talking to the Klan’s leader on the phone
Even though the film is set more than 40 years ago, the man conspicuously in Lee’s crosshairs is President Donald Trump. His slogans about making America great again and putting America first are echoed throughout the movie, and were greeted each time with a ripple of appreciative laughter from the Cannes audience.
Significantly, Black KkKlansman begins with a cameo by Alec Baldwin, Trump’s most famous impersonator, as a white supremacist making a propaganda film.
Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s boy) is the first African-American cop on the Colorado Springs force. Not only must he deal with plenty of institutionalised racism from his fellow officers, but his first undercover operation is to spy on the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), in town to exhort black students to rise up against racial injustice.
If it weren’t a true story, Lee and his screenwriters might have worked harder to make all this seem real – the merry band of bigots seem too stupid to be properly threatening
Awkwardly, he falls for the pretty student president, Patrice (Laura Harrier), almost blowing his cover by asking her not to refer to cops as ‘pigs’.
Soon, however, Ron gets a chance to mount an operation that will leave him less conflicted. He makes telephone contact with the KKK, identifying himself with lots of use of the N-word as a kindred spirit.
He also proclaims himself a raging anti-Semite, which leads to another crashing irony, because the white detective detailed to be his physical incarnation at Klan gatherings is a Jew, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver).
Here, though, is yet another irony; if it weren’t a true story, Lee and his screenwriters might have worked harder to make all this seem real. There is a certain amount of tension when Flip, posing as Ron, meets the merry band of bigots, but they all seem too stupid to be properly threatening.
The white detective detailed to be Stallworth’s physical incarnation at Klan gatherings is a Jew, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, pictured right)
The most perceptive of a very dim lot is Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), who thinks Flip might be Jewish and orders him to take a lie-detector test. Nonetheless, it’s easy enough to wonder why any of these idiots (with Paul Walter Hauser more or less reprising his numbskull act from I, Tonya), warrant an undercover investigation.
Even the KKK’s national leader, its so-called Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), is duped on the phone by Stallworth, but he too comes across as feeble and impressionable, not even a tinpot Hitler.
Lee wants to have his cake and eat it, yet subverts his own film by ridiculing the KKK one minute and trying to make them seem like a dangerously volatile enemy the next.
Even the KKK’s national leader, its so-called Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace, pictured), is duped on the phone and comes across as feeble
Lee (pictured today at Cannes) wants to have his cake and eat it, yet subverts his own film by ridiculing the KKK one minute and trying to make them seem like a dangerously volatile enemy the next
It comes as a surprise when suddenly they’re plotting a bombing campaign. Until then, for all their practise on firing ranges with cut-out black men as targets, you’d think that dog dirt through mailboxes might be the extent of their threat.
Lee’s own prejudices further trip him up with the representation of a virulently racist cop on the Colorado Springs force. It simply defies credibility that this man, who has undermined Ron from the day he joined, would not tip off the KKK.
Get Out was a much more ingenious satire on modern racism, writes Brian Viner (pictured: Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in the film produced by Jordan Peele)
Still, with all these caveats, Black KkKlansman tells a story well worth knowing. And it’s nice to see the venerable Harry Belafonte playing a veteran civil rights campaigner, albeit in a heavy-handed passage of action in which Lee cuts between the black activists looking on in horror at clips of DW Griffith’s technically accomplished but infamously racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, and the KKK men watching in delight.
If only someone had advised the director to use a lighter touch, for instance his co-producer Jordan Peele, whose own 2017 film Get Out was a much more ingenious, wittier satire on modern US racism. Alas, Lee is a law unto himself, even though he of all people should know that the law is not always right.