Film & TV

What BlacKkKlansman Gets Wrong

John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features )
It’s a slow, didactic film about a minor episode.

Billed as being based on “a crazy, outrageous incredible true story” about how a black cop infiltrated the KKK, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman would be more accurately described as the story of how a black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs spoke to the Klan on the phone. He pretended to be a white supremacist . . . on the phone. That isn’t infiltration, that’s prank-calling. A poster for the movie shows a black guy wearing a Klan hood. Great starting point for a comedy, but it didn’t happen. The cop who actually attended KKK meetings undercover was a white guy (played by Adam Driver). These led . . . well, nowhere in particular. No plot was foiled. Those meetups mainly revealed that Klansmen behave exactly how you’d expect Klansmen to behave.

The movie is a typical Spike Lee joint: A thin story is told in painfully didactic style and runs on far too long. Screenwriters ordinarily try to start every scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible; Lee just lets things roll. If the point is made, he keeps making it. If the plot tends toward inertia, that’s just Lee saying, “Don’t get distracted by the story, pay attention to the message I’m sending.” He’s a rule-breaker all right. The rules he breaks are “Don’t be boring,” “Don’t be obvious,” and “Don’t ramble.”

But! BlacKkKlansman keeps getting called spot-on, and (as Quentin Tarantino showed in Django Unchained) the moronic nature of the Klan and its beliefs makes it an excellent target for comedy. Lee doesn’t exactly wield an épée as a satirist, though: His idea of a top joke is having the redneck Klansman think “gooder” is a word. Most of the movie isn’t even attempted comedy.

Lee’s principal achievement here is in showcasing the talents of John David Washington, in the first of what promise to be many starring roles in movies. Washington (son of Denzel) has an easygoing charisma as the unflappable Ron Stallworth, a rookie cop in Colorado Springs who volunteers to go undercover as a detective in 1972, near the height of the Black Power movement and a moment when law enforcement was closely tracking the activities of radicals such as Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture, a speech of whose Stallworth says he attended while posing as an ordinary citizen. In the movie, Stallworth experiences an awakening of black pride and falls for a student leader, Patrice (a luminous Laura Harrier, who also played Peter Parker’s girlfriend in Spider-Man: Homecoming), inspiring in him the need to do something for his people. He dismisses Carmichael’s call for armed revolution as mere grandstanding, really just a means for drawing black people together. After the speech, the audience goes to a party instead of a riot.

The Klan also turn out to be grandstanders and blowhards given to Carmichael-style paranoid prophecies and seem to hope to troll their enemies into attacking them. When Lee realizes he needs something to actually happen besides racist talk, he turns to a subplot featuring a white-supremacist lady running around with a purse full of C-4 explosive with which she intends to blow up the black radicals. It’s so unconvincing that you watch it thinking, “I really doubt this happened.” It didn’t. The only other tense moment in the film, in which Driver’s undercover cop (who is Jewish) is nearly subjected to a lie-detector test about his religion by a suspicious Klansman, is also fabricated.

Lee frames his two camps as opposites, but whether we’re with the black-power types or the white-power yokels, they’re equally wrong about the race war they seem to yearn for. The two sides are equally far from the stable center, the color-blind institution holding society together, which turns out to be . . . the police! After some talk from the radical Patrice (whose character is also a fabrication) about how the whole system is corrupt and she could never date a “pig,” and a scene in which Stallworth implies the police’s code of covering for one another reminds him of the Klan, Lee winds up having the police unite to fight racism, with one bad apple expunged and everybody else on the otherwise all-white force supporting Ron.

That Spike Lee has turned in a pro-cop film has to be counted one of the stranger cultural developments of 2018, but Lee seems to have accidentally aligned with cops in the course of issuing an anti-Trump broadside. He has one cop tell us that anti-immigration rhetoric, opposition to affirmative action, “and tax reform” are the kinds of issues that white supremacists will use to snake their way into high office. Tax reform! If there has ever been a president, or indeed a politician, who failed to advocate “tax reform,” I guess I missed it. What candidate has ever said on the stump, “My fellow Americans, I propose no change to tax policy whatsoever!” If Lee grabbed us by the lapels just once per movie, it might be forgivable, but he does it all the time. (See also: an introduction in which Alec Baldwin plays a Southern cracker called Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard who rants about desegregation for several minutes, then is never seen again.)

Lee’s other major goal is to link Stallworth’s story to Trumpism using David Duke. Duke, like Trump, said awful things at the time of the Charlottesville murder and played a part in the Stallworth story when the cop was assigned to protect the Klan leader (played by Topher Grace) on a visit to Colorado Springs and later threw his arm around him while posing for a picture. Saying Duke presaged Trump seems like a stretch, though.

After all the nudge-nudge MAGA lines uttered by the Klansmen throughout the film, the let-me-spell-it-out-for-you finale, with footage from the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, seems de trop. BlacKkKlansman was timed to hit theaters one year after the anniversary of the horror in Virginia. That Charlottesville II attracted only two dozen pathetic dorks to the cause of white supremacy would seem to undermine the coda. The Klan’s would-be successors, far from being more emboldened than they have been since Stallworth’s time, appear to be nearly extinct.

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