Humor, horror masterfully mix in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman.’  

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Simply put, “BlacKkKlansman” is one of Spike Lee’s best, a film that is smart as well as hilarious. The story is based on the strange but true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s and became a card-carrying member. 

How that young black rookie officer partnering with a Jewish cop pulled off that preposterous move is the subject of Lee’s film, but the director uses the historical story to make some pointed observations about today’s socio-political landscape in the face of resurgent white nationalism. 

The improbable tale is based on the 2014 memoir “Black Klansman” by retired Colorado Springs Police Officer Ron Stallworth. Although the story is based on real events that took place in the late 1970s, it is timely: The film’s release date is the one-year anniversary of a rally in Charlottesville, Va., which was marked by violence and anti-Semitic chanting by white supremacists.

The true story is so outlandish that the comedy practically writes itself, and Lee goes for it. There is a buddy-comedy aspect to the film as well, and the absurd humor is boosted by ’70s details like wild disco outfits, Afro hairstyles and a soundtrack referencing blaxploitation films of the era. Still, this is no period piece and no simple comedy, and the real menace of racism and anti-Semitism is ever present. 

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In the late 1970s, Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington) is the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department. Stuck in the records room, the frustrated and ambitious rookie cop jumps at the chance to go undercover to report back on any “troublemaking” threat presented by a speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), once known as Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. Stallworth’s thorough work earns him a promotion to detective.  

As Stallworth scans the local newspaper looking for something to investigate, he comes across an ad offering information about the Ku Klux Klan. He dials the phone number and convinces the Klansman who answers that he is white and a racist. As Stallworth rambles about hating blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians and “anyone else who hasn’t got pure white Aryan blood,” his co-workers slowly turn in their chairs and jaws drop. He sets up a meeting and hangs up.

Obviously, Stallworth can’t meet with the Klan, so he hits on the idea of sending a white cop, Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to be “Ron Stallworth” for the meeting. Zimmerman, who is Jewish and a more experienced detective, is cool to the idea. But Stallworth sets out to persuade him, arguing that bringing down the KKK is Zimmerman’s fight, too.  Zimmerman finally agrees, and the pair set up a plan where Ron is the voice on the phone and Flip is the face at the meetings. 

As the unconventional investigation unfolds, the two cops bond. The man Stallworth spoke to on the phone is local KKK chapter leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), who is eager to have a new member. The small group Zimmerman meets seems almost laughable — racist rednecks hanging out, drinking beer and shooting guns. All welcome him except one member, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) who is suspicious and thinks there is “something Jewish” about the new recruit. Despite Walter’s assurances, Felix keeps a wary eye on Zimmerman and digs for evidence. 

Eventually, the infiltration leads the two cops to the grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke, played by Topher Grace.The media-savvy Duke in the 1980s sought to sanitize the KKK to make the group more appealing to the mainstream, but Grace plays him with a kind of goofiness that makes him even scarier. 

The cast also includes Laura Harrier as a black student activist-organizer; singer and longtime civil rights activist Harry Belafonte as one of Ture’s supporters; and Alec Baldwin as narrator and as a Southern aristocratic KKK supporter named Beauregard, who appears in a chilling black and white sequence.

Washington’s Stallworth is the noble young hero, but Driver gets the more interesting and complicated role as Zimmerman, a character who grapples with the role of identity and family background. At the film’s start, Zimmerman wears a Star of David on a chain around his neck, but he does not think much about his Jewish identity. Being confronted directly by the Klan’s anti-Semitism and racism changes that, a transformation Driver shows with great skill.

While Stallworth has fun fooling the Klan on the phone, it is his partner who has to deal with them face-to-face. Zimmerman has to conceal from the Klan that he’s not the guy on the phone, he’s a cop and he’s Jewish. 

Driver is a gifted actor, a graduate of Juilliard, who makes the most of this role, coming close to stealing the film from Washington. Some of the most tense and chilling scenes focus on Driver’s Zimmerman interacting with the cunning, menacing, anti-Semite played by Pääkkönen. 

As director and co-writer of the script, Lee has something to say about the present-day resurgence of white supremacy. However, he is surprisingly indirect about that, seamlessly inserting clever or ironic details into the narrative. 

There is nothing preachy in the film. Rather, it is masterfully constructed, tautly alternating between the comic elements and harrowingly tense action scenes. The line between humor and horror, slapstick and scary, can be a fine one, and Spike Lee takes us across it time and again in this excellent film.