I want to start by saying I’m not really a ‘movie’ kind of cat. I don’t have a streaming service, I don’t see a lot of movies in the theater. But those movies that I do see, I tend to have real interest in. They tend to be smaller scale movies, usually something from a director I like, or something with a trailer that sells me right away. Generally they aren’t widespread, and they usually aren’t based on a true story of a Real American Hero.
BlacKkKlansman, a Spike Lee joint, is then something of an anomaly – it falls into both categories. It has plenty of critical acclaim, having won the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year, and has a strong reception from both critics and audiences alike. But it’s also based in reality, and hardly an obscure movie.
The film tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the real-life Colorado Springs police detective who successfully infiltrated the local chapter of the KKK. It’s a remarkable story, and it’s easy to see Lee taking a personal investment in the project.
John David Washington stars as Stallworth, an everyman with an outsized Afro and ambition to match. The film has a very strong cast, and Washington strikes a solid balance between being likeable but remaining grounded in the serious stakes of the story.
It’s Stallworth’s story, but the supporting cast absolutely shines here. Laura Harrier is great, and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman – the Jewish police officer serving as Stallworth’s proxy for face-to-face meeting with “the organization” – is excellent as always. And the ‘enemy’ is well represented here, too. I was especially impressed by Topher Grace, who plays David Duke with such public charm that he’d be likeable as the leader of almost any other organization.
The film itself manages a precarious balance between being enjoyable and being effective. It would be a success if it managed to achieve one of these things; in doing both, it becomes a genuine triumph. There are some very funny scenes here, especially Stallworth interacting with the other detectives working the investigation. And Stallworth’s phone calls with David Duke embody the entire film – they are hilarious at times, but also painful, and never lose sight of the personal stakes.
Much as I wanted to write this review without mentioning politics, it’s impossible – they are the heart of the film. Agree with Lee or not, he makes a strong argument here, impossible to ignore. There are some affecting, powerful scenes here, and the film has a remarkable, powerful ending. Lee refuses to allow a happy ending, nor should he. Stallworth’s story may be decades old, but it’s no less important for being dated. We’re fortunate to have a movie both this enjoyable and this affecting to remember it by.