This 2018 film is based on the true story of Detective Ron Stallworth, who through his own doggedness managed to get an undercover sting of a local KKK chapter underway. Along the way Stallworth talks to infamous Klan leader David Duke (played by Topher Grace) and finds that there are Klan members in law enforcement as high up as Military Police who worked at NORAD. Now of course a black man can’t go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan so Stallworth’s partner Phil Zimmerman does the actual in person infiltrating while Stallworth pretends to be him when speaking to the Klansmen over the phone. Along the way, Phil is constantly challenged to prove his racist bona fides to real Klan members and it all culminates in a race to stop planned bombing that’s supposed to go down while Duke himself is in town to MC a graduation ceremony for the local Klan chapter.
The acting was superb. John David Washington and Adam Driver in particular were outstanding and deserved all the accolades they got for their performances. Laura Harrier, seen previously in Spider-Man: Homecoming, was very good as Patrice, Stallworth’s love interest and president of the Black Student Union at the local university. The rest of the cast did well but those three really stood out for me. The underlying theme of finding one’s cultural identity amongst all the chaos played was another plus. Stallworth is a black cop who has imbedded himself with Patrice’s Black Panther adjacent student union group, and is peppered with questions about and denunciations of the police that he has to fend off without blowing his cover, and in the face of being told about incidents of misconduct towards his fellow black people has to justify his own participation in the profession. Meanwhile Zimmerman, who is Jewish but was not raised in any of the customs or traditions, finds himself desiring to learn about them while he is passing as a racist white guy. He’s repeatedly accused of being Jewish by the men he’s trying to get in with and has to deny his heritage like Peter denied Christ in order to prove to Klan chapter that he’s on the up and up, and in doing so starts to feel some kinda way about never having an interest in his cultural heritage.
Racial and ethnic minorities who have chosen to enter any form of public service be it politics, the military, or law enforcement are always faced with this internal debate. Should I even be here? Am I fooling myself by thinking I can actually do some good for my people in this job? Do I deserve all the funny looks I get around my own folks when they find out what I do? If I do manage to do right by my people here will they even appreciate it? Am I just aiding and abetting those who would continue to subjugate us by doing this job? The decision to stay the course and fight the good fight on the inside often comes with sacrifices, as we see towards the movie’s end, while your work is constantly undermined and disregarded by your co workers and superiors as we see when Stallworth and Zimmerman have some major successes all but discarded by the powers that be within their precinct. This conflict and ongoing dilemma for Stallworth and Zimmerman is the best part of the film and the soul of the story.
The um, white klansmen were bad. I mean comically bad. They’re evil, vile people and yet their lines were so over the top and delivered in such a ‘look everybody, time to do a racism’ way that at times it was hard to keep a straight face listening to them. The expected racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs were dropped so frequently and with the gusto of a kid who’s cursing for the first time and trying to sound cool that none of them really hit the way you needed them to in order to really hurt. Contrast that with the racists in Lee’s Malcolm X and you can see the difference. They pierce your soul and stir up all the anger, fear, and frustration that they are supposed to. Here I felt guilty because I’m supposed to be offended by all that stuff and yet I was often laughing because the lines themselves and the delivery were that hard to take seriously. These were evil men and they came off like potty mouthed villains from the old Adam West Batman show.
The end came off like they ran out of film or money or something. We got the age old Spike Lee camera pan (if you’ve seen a lot of his movies you know what I’m talking about), which no one must have the courage to tell him sucks, and then an abrupt ending shot of Stallworth and Patrice in a hallway and an immediate switchover to clips of Charlottesville in 2017, the racist tiki torch demonstrations, and the counter demonstrators that came later along with when Heather Halsey was mowed down by a racist driver and killed. Lee has done this kind of thing before and the clips were fine but could we get an actual end to the story first? Some kind of resolution between Stallworth and Patrice? A tip as to where Stallworth was going next after his team was essentially disbanded? We got nothing instead and that sucked.
This being a movie based on a true story means that some things were changed in order to make for a better movie. Zimmerman is a made up character because Stallworth’s real partner never revealed himself, and no one outed him. The bomb plot was added so there would be some kind of big thing to stop in the third act; it wasn’t part of anything of the intelligence Stallworth and Zimmerman gathered on the local Klan chapter. In the case of this movie I don’t find either of those things particularly offensive. Stallworth’s story is one that was worth telling and those things don’t detract from it in my book.
Overall I’d say it was a good but not great movie with some great performances and an interesting story. That it won best Adapted Screenplay seems to me like a proverbial make up Oscar for Spike that the Academy is notorious for. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing easily were more deserving of major accolades than this movie, but they were shut out and Spike is a made man of sorts in Hollywood so it was time to settle some accounts. And while this film did deal with racism it didn’t do it a way that would make the fine folks at the Academy feel like they were being personally attacked so it was a good time to reward Lee before they had to do it for a more damning piece of work later.
Final Score: 4/6 (Good)