One of the reasons I was interested in this film was the subject matter. A black cop in the seventies infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan with the help of his white partner. It highlights a lot of the social injustices that continue within the American culture and I wanted to see how well those messages were focused on in the movie. The trailers have focused on the comedic irony, especially the duping of the Grand Wizard, David Dukes (Topher Grace). This humor, used in the marketing of the film also held appeal. Yet, ultimately, the story is less influenced by humor but more a portrait of bigotry and hatred in America, a balanced portrayal of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), brilliant in the juxtaposition of parallels between the cycle of hate in the seventies with today’s political climate and offers an intense, unflinching view of race relations.
The film presents us the almost improbable story of Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. This isn’t the strange part. Ron is ambitious and wants to become a detective. He agrees to go undercover and help monitor a speech by a civil rights activist, Kwame Ture, who advocates ‘Black Power’. There Ron meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the black student union at the local college who becomes important to Ron.
Ron is brought into the intelligence section for his work. There, he reads an ad in the newspaper for a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron calls up the group, pretends to be a white racist wanting to join the group. He comes up with a scheme, he will continue to speak with the Klan over the phone and have his white partner, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) meet with the group in person so they can gather intelligence on the organization. Eventually, he even finds himself talking with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke. The real question is whether the pair can keep up the ruse long enough to prevent the Klan’s plans to terrorize the community of Colorado Springs?
Spike Lee clearly has a message to tell with the film. What is far more interesting is that the events of the movie really happened. Ron even still has his membership card to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to prove the reality of his actions. What makes the narrative compelling is twofold. First, Spike Lee has addressed the realism of racial hatred and the horror of bigotry with an unflinching eye. He illustrates the violence of the Klan while also showing how easy it is for a few individuals to create hatred in a few, using film and nationalism to stir up ill will and bigotry.
The story also is balanced in how it presents Ron’s story. Ron himself is conflicted or at least presented in the movie this way. While he is educated and wants to make a difference, while dating Patrice, he hides his true job as a policeman. One of the parallels between both the Klan and the black student group is that both call the police pigs, both avoiding them for different reasons. The students get harassed by officers, even when they are doing nothing wrong while the Klan avoids the police to further their purpose of causing fear and terror to the people of color in Colorado Springs. This opinion by Patrice causes conflict in Ron and illustrates how easy it is for a group to create isolation, whether that is the police or the students who want to change the structure of their society and don’t feel the police will change.
Another thoughtful piece of the filmmaking was the way the story has cycles. Ron has moments of triumph, points when he brings down the Klan, when he shows Dukes who he truly is or when a corrupt police officer is arrested. But for each of those triumphs, we are also shown scenes where events continue in the same patterns of corruption, apathy, and racial stereotyping. Even once he arrests members of the Klan, Ron is no longer allowed to continue the investigation. The Klan continues their war of terror, burning crosses. Every time there is a triumph, there is a downfall much like in the history of this country and our willingness to accept and respect each other. Every time a we make strides forward in accepting all power for all the people, as quoted in the movie, we see the resurgence of hate groups like the KKK. The final scenes challenge us as a society to see that while there have been changes, there is still racial hatred and violence.
This movie will also challenge people’s viewpoints and set biases. The story shows diversity, not just in Ron and the other people of color but also in the other groups within the story. Ron’s partner, Phillip Zimmerman, is Jewish and yet isn’t raised as a Jew, causing Ron to question him at times. Yet, Phillip changes over the course of the film, absorbing some of Ron’s passion for their investigation. Ron is divided by his commitment to his job but also his desire to help his community. Even the Klansman are more diverse than most people would suspect, highlighting that it is not just the simple or unintelligent who hate. David Dukes is portrayed as a caring family man but with a deep seated hatred of black men and Jews. The contrasts help raise awareness of both the complexities of racial biases but also how easy it is for people to find reasons to hate those who are different. That awareness is important. If we do not see these hate groups clearly, we will fail to see their true nature, the true insidiousness and sickness at the heart of their hatred.
John David Washington is brilliant, both able to demonstrate dislike of the characters situation but also able lighten the mood with ironic humor. And while the movie is not at all the buddy comedy the marketing would have you think it is, there is an undeniable dynamic at play between Washington and Driver. Adam Driver is believable and solid in his acting, small moments giving him opportunity to shine, especially when trying to prevent the Klan from discovering who he is. Topher Grace is so believable as Davis that he rather turns your stomach with the combination of friendliness and sickening beliefs about the people of color and those of Jewish heritage. While his performance is necessary, it is still difficult to watch. Equally good at making you applaud their performances are Jasper Pääkkönen who plays Felix Kendrickson, Ashlie Atkinson who plays Connie his wife and co-conspirator, and Ryan Eggold as Walter Breachway, the other leader of the Klan group with each actor ingenious in their performances and still managing to make you dislike their behavior.
What causes a lag is that the movie is longer than expected. It lags in places and part of that is due to the lack of development on some key players. Ron and his partner Phillip are given enough time to be engaging but Patrice, Ron’s girlfriend, has not been given enough screen time to truly develop her character. The same is true of the Ku Klux Klan members. And while their roles are important, it’s hard to be truly involved if you don’t know very much about the characters. Patrice, in particular, seems like she should be more important. Ron wants to help protect her which is part of his motivation but the film wanders too much to give us enough time with her.
The biggest issue, though, is the way the film is being marketed as a buddy comedy cop movie when it is a drama about race relations. Neither one is intrinsically more important than the other. I like a good, entertaining movie but audience members going into a buddy cop movie might feel shortchanged. It does have a lot of that dynamic and there is some ironic humor at play in the film. But remember, it is a Spike Lee film and while it is highly entertaining, it is far more about race and bigotry than a cop movie.
Yet the realism and the final message carry home what this movie is truly about and that is a message that I think most people will want to hear. There are still people who wish to bring about peace and change. It is an intense movie and should be watched with the knowledge that this film will provoke thought, discussion and hopefully, reach those who most need to hear the message. Will they? The final scenes of the movie illustrate that while race relations have moved forward, there are those who still wish to turn back the clock, to days when those of a different color were slaves. If you watch this movie for nothing else, go to prevent those people from winning. Enjoy a moment of triumph when those who hate didn’t win for once.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Afros
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