Fans of a certain retired homicide detective might feel they know the police force of Colorado Springs and as it happens “Homicide Hunter” Joe Kenda who joined the force in 1973 and became a detective in 1977 was there at the same time that Colorado Springs recruited their “Jackie Robinson.” I’m not sure when Ron Stallworth joined the Colorado Springs police (He retired in 2005), but it was in 1979, when Stallworth saw an ad placed by the Ku Klux Klan and used his rotary phone to get in contact with this shadowy “organization.”
Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is the wild “fo’ real, fo’ real shit” about Colorado Springs’ first black officer, Stallworth, who teams up with a “white” officer to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan. You might find that this film skitters uneasily and unevenly between parody and more realistic dramatics, but in this Trumpland era, where dark comedy is played out everyday in and around the White House, I’d say that Lee has brought us reality, tidied up for cinematic effect.
Lee begins “BlacKkKlansman” with the movie that Woodrow Wilson screened at the White House: “The Birth of a Nation.” The D.W. Griffith silent flick came out in 1915 and helped the Ku Klux Klan enrollment. Wilson served as president from 1913-1921 and seemed perpetually worried about how the racist Southerners would judge his actions.
That was then; this is now or at least in the 1970s. Why would we be seeing this film in the 1970s? Because a bumbling Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard (Alec Baldwin) is giving a rancid racist pep talk, stumbling and being fed lines from an unseen person as the movie plays across his face. We’ll see excerpts of “The Birth of a Nation” again when we become entrenched in the KKK, but before that, we get to meet Stallworth, played by John David Washington, former St. Louis Rams running back and son of Denzel. He’s already been tested in the HBO comedy series, “Ballers,” and holds his own well as the lead.
The Colorado Springs police department was looking to add diversity to its blindly white force and Stallworth is willing. His Afro looks like a well-maintained topiary, but Lee and his cinematographer Chayze Irvine makes them look like halos when it counts. Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke, familiar to fans of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” as NYPD Internal Affairs Captain Ed Tucker) asks him, “What would you do if someone here called you a nigger?” And that warning isn’t unfounded as we soon learn.
Stallworth is uninspired by his first assignment, but when a black student college organization invites Black Panther Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) to speak, the police department needs ears and eyes inside the meeting and a white policeman just wouldn’t do. Stallworth is sent in wired but he’s moved by the words of Carmichael who has assumed the moniker of “Kwame Ture” but Kwame Ture had already disavowed the Black Panther association but remained a socialist and “ready for a revolution.” Stallworth is also moved by the president of the black student association, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).
Patrice believes in revolution by tearing down from the outside while Stallworth feels in rebuilding from the inside. He continues to romance her but misleads her as to his occupation. Stallworth is moved to a different department where, he decides to answer a classified ad recruiting for the KKK. His white voice racist speak is stunning and understandably shocks his co-workers. But Stallworth makes two mistakes: One, he used his real name and two, he must meet the KKK face-to-face.
That’s where fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) comes in. Zimmerman can pass for white, but is Jewish by birth but not practice. When immersed with the Klan members, he’s confronted by the double life he’s leading just as every minute of Stallworth’s time with the lovely, but passionately political Patrice, is another form of passing.
Stallworth, in his white phone voice, contacts David Duke (an earnest Topher Grace), who becomes a supporter of Stallworth’s charismatic character on the phone although perhaps somewhat less impressed by the more hesitant Zimmerman.
This screenplay (written by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin WIllmott) doesn’t spare women. The scrawny oily Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) who is suspicious of Flip is married to the pleasantly plump, subservient but viciously racist Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). They cuddle to the sweet thoughts of assaulting and killing black people.
Lee has layered meaning into this film, from beginning it with and having it narrated by the very voice that takes on President Trump to the inclusion of a real-life Civil Rights hero, Harry Belafonte, as Jerome Turner a witness to a horrific lynching. If you haven’t seen “Sing Your Song,” a documentary about Belafonte, then read up on his Civil Rights legacy.
In the end, Lee takes us from the political stand-off between Patrice and Stallworth through an impossibly long corridor with Patrice and Stallworth almost transforming into blaxploitation heroes looking out to the KKK who were only thwarted but not defeated. Then we leap into 2017 and to the Charlottesville that one journalist called a “crime scene.” “BlacKkKlansman” is dedicated to Heather Heyer who died in Charlottesville with a “rest in power.” Heyer cannot speak for herself, but her mother has been speaking out this week.
Now if you think you have no skin in the game, you’re dreaming. Heyer knew that all races and religions had to speak up. Certainly, Jewish people who can pass should remember that Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Lee shows us how Flip becomes “woke” to the implications of the KKK for him and his family.
Asians have skin in this game and not just because some of us can “pass” for white, or, like Jesus Christ, are now considered white, or because some Asians are black. Some Asians, like myself, cannot pass for black or white. We will be the other. Whether or not you live in Los Angeles, you should be aware that Asians were targeted by racists. Consider the Chinese Exclusion Act. If you’re not Chinese, then remember the exclusion acts that followed and the laws that made Asians second-class citizens.
In Los Angeles, no ethnic Asian should hear about a lynching and not think about the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles, the Chinese massacre of 1871. If you’ve seen Ken Burns: “The West” you must know that the targets of lynching West of the Mississippi were predominately Mexicans, Native Americans and Asians–not blacks.
The recent Frontline investigation: “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” indicated that some of the militant street-fighting white nationalists are based in California and there’s been a pattern of escalating violence in California. David Duke, a prominent presence in “BlacKkKlansman” resurfaced after Charlottesville in Twitter.
The Frontline journalist A.C. Thompson found just as Stallworth did in the 1970s, that some virulent racists were members of the military and that should worry us all. If you look between the lines, you’ll see that the fear of being replaced that creates the heightened racist anxiety is likely not just focused on Jews or blacks, but also on the rising population of Latinos and Asians.
Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a must-see timely dramedy. See it once and see it twice and stay to listen to the song played as the credits roll.
There sure were some interesting times in Colorado Springs.