Here’s the synopsis for BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee:
Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan over the phone with the help of a fellow white police officer, who eventually becomes head of the local branch.
That sounds like a too-good-to-be-true story. But it actually happened and who better to tell such a story than Lee, a director known for pushing boundaries on race and politics in his films. Despite a seemingly perfect fit however, Lee manages to mishandle this story on a number of levels resulting in a film that feels like a wasted opportunity.
Let’s start with the characters. John David Washington (Son of Denzel) portrays Stallworth with an odd mix of charm and ignorance. He literally walks in off the street to become the first black police officer in Colorado Springs and within fifteen minutes of screentime, he goes from rookie in the records room to a detective leading an investigation. He is not given any room to grow because the plot needs to move forward. But he’s “ambitious” according to the screenplay so it’s fine.
Adam Driver is Flip Zimmerman, the white officer posing as Stallworth. Driver is great as always and his scenes with Washington are the best in the film. But he’s just a Jew pretending to be a Neo-Nazi and nothing more.
There’s so much to explore there and instead Lee wastes Driver’s talent with scene after scene of Zimmerman going to Klan meetings and proving his worth to their cause. It reminds me of a much better film involving a cop infiltrating a Neo-Nazi group, Imperium. That film tackles the cost of going against everything you believe in to get the job done. I don’t know what Zimmerman believes in because we don’t get to know him.
A love interest in the form of Patrice (Laura Harrier) begins with Stallworth after his first undercover assignment involves attending a civil rights rally. She’s a student activist leader unaware that he’s a cop. They talk about black culture, white power, civil rights and police brutality. That last subject would make for an interesting dynamic between the two, but instead it acts as another fleeting subplot that goes nowhere.
Besides the one-note characters, the film is all over the place on a tonal level. BlacKkKlansman has four screenwriters (including Lee) credited on the film and you really feel it. Scenes bounce back and forth from downright goofy to super serious. In one odd scene near the end, Stallworth, Zimmerman and Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) perform a sting operation to out one of their fellow officers who is a corrupt racist. This entire scene feels misplaced and tacked on just to give the audience some form of gratification. Everyone is high-fiving at the end and this is immediately followed by a scene where Bridges tells the entire team to drop their investigation into the Ku Klux Klan due to “budget cuts.” What? He also tells them to destroy their findings. Why?
The story also doesn’t evolve organically. One character acts as a bodyguard for David Duke (Topher Grace) and it makes absolutely no sense. It only happens so that that character can discover something. And the way he obtains this information is also ridiculous.
Lee is attempting satire or blaxploitation or something and it gets in the way of telling a compelling true story. Lee also can’t help but interject current events into the screenplay that are absurdly unsubtle. One shot lingers on a poster of Richard Nixon. Another scene blatantly turns into “this is where we indirectly talk about Donald Trump without actually talking about him.”
There’s great individual scenes in BlacKkKlansman. Perhaps the best intercuts between a KKK ceremony and activist Harry Belafonte reminiscing about a young black man whose savage murder was presented as entertainment for a white audience in the early 20th Century. It’s powerful.
There’s also clever comedic moments like Stallworth having to apply for a membership in the KKK like he’s signing up for a new credit card. Even the KKK has hidden fees in the application. You want a white hood and robe? You’ll have to pay a little extra for that.
But Lee can’t decide which movie he wants to make and the screenplay isn’t sophisticated enough to balance both. There’s a great buddy cop movie in there somewhere. When was the last time we had a great buddy cop movie? If Lee had made that the main plot with all of these prescient ideas surrounding it, BlacKkKlansman could have been great.
Instead we get what feels like the outline of a potentially great movie that tackles relevant topics that were as important in the ‘70s as they are today. The ending is a gut-punch. But it doesn’t feel earned based on everything that comes before it.
The fact that BlacKkKlansman exists in 2018 is a win. Is it timely? Sure. Is it polemic? Absolutely. But Lee is capable of so much better.