Spike Lee’s latest film is based on the true story of a black police detective who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. I thought it was exceptional, one of Lee’s best films, playing comedy against the ugly tragedy of racism to great effect. It suffers a bit from Lee’s characteristic overreach but on the whole it is very entertaining.
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, a real cop who worked in Colorado Springs to expose the KKK, infiltrating the group with the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (one of my favourite actors). The supporting cast is very good, particularly Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen who are uncomfortably good at portraying the sociopathic Klansmen who were fooled by Stallworth into bringing him into the fold.
There is a subplot involving black student union protesters which seems to serve as a counter-point to the toxic racism on display in everything the Klan characters do or say which I felt worked, even if they sometimes were a bit broad in their depictions of each side. I thought the film did an excellent job of sending up the racists as essentially stupid silly man-children with their clubhouse meetings and ridiculous names and titles, but nevertheless dangerous, as any angry child with a gun would be. I thought the balance of making fun of their shit and yet acknowledging how deadly serious they are at the same time gave the film a terrific tension throughout which amplified the laughs as well as the danger. Adam Driver is just so damn likable, I was mortally afraid of him being exposed while undercover because I just hated the idea of seeing anything bad happen to him.
The movie does suffer from Spike Lee’s habit of overstating a point a number of times. I really liked how many points to the current state if the US were made, things like saying how Duke’s ultimate goal is to install a president sympathetic to the Klan, or his cry of “make America great!”, all of which land on the right side of being on-the-nose. How disappointing and unnecessary, then, to throw in footage from Charlottestown, including the shot of the car mowing down the counter-protesters, as an epilogue. I felt it ruined an otherwise excellent film that had thus far handled the allusions to modern America more or less subtly and it left a sour taste.
I definitely would recommend seeing this movie, in spite of my misgivings about the final coda. I loved the cast and felt the tension of lampooning the Klan gave rise to big laughs. I felt Lee’s usual preachiness was more moderate than usual, which let me enjoy the story and characters more. Funny, exciting, thought-provoking; I’d say it’s a good movie, in my opinion.