It’s unfortunate that “BlacKkKlansman” overpowers the genuinely fascinating true story of Ron Stallworth, a black 1970s detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, with so much flagrantly fictionalized Hollywood hokum. Director Spike Lee seems intent upon sabotaging his juiced-up joint by any means necessary, whether that means making up characters who send the plot into action-movie fantasyland, intercutting scenes from an unlikely “Birth of a Nation” screening with a solemn lecture on lynching, or making the film look amateurishly goofy with a montage of raptly intent limbo-floating faces during a black power speech.
The overlong and style-hopping screenplay by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott is based on Stallworth’s nonfiction memoir “The Black Klansman.” The extra “K” that makes the movie’s title look ridiculous is emblematic of what’s wrong with the film as a whole: it ends up being an unnecessary and distracting detraction.
Star John David Washington (whose father Denzel Washington has appeared in four Lee films) is coolly laid back while simmering with resentment as the turtleneck-and-medallion-sporting Stallworth, but charmingly funny when the movie lapses into buddy-cop sitcom territory. After Stallworth pretends to be a white racist to make phone contact with a local Colorado chapter of the KKK, he enlists white fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play his in-person substitute.
The ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Treatment
Driver is amusingly Keanu-Reeves deadpan as the unflappable Flip. Referred to as Chuck in the book, where his religion is not mentioned, Flip has become Jewish for the film, allowing Lee to cover one more bigotry base. As Stallworth tells him at one point, Flip has “skin in the game” as another KKK-targeted minority. This detail also sets up a tense but imaginary “Jew lie detector” predicament for Flip when a Klan member suspects his Semitism.
A much more significant deviation from reality is Stallworth’s wholly made-up movie girlfriend Patrice Dumas (a sweetly adorable Laura Harrier). With a planet-sized afro and round-frame gold glasses, the Black Student Union president is a cover-girl cute version of civil rights activist Angela Davis. Patrice is given to making political pronouncements and taking part in bygone chants of “Ungawa Black Power” and “All Power to All the People.” (Present-day critics of the hashtag “All Lives Matter,” take note.)
Going far beyond serving as a mere love interest who never existed, the fictional Patrice becomes essential to the story’s third act and its explosively phony climax when she is targeted because of her high visibility in town. It’s hard not to imagine the real Ron Stallworth watching the film’s counterfeit characters and never-happened nick-of-time action beats in wide-eyed disbelief, wondering why his compelling true-life account got the “Inglourious Basterds” treatment.
Granted, nearly every “inspired by a true story” movie takes at least a few liberties with its subject matter. The problem here is that the additions and embellishments are so extensive they give the entire affair a “fruit of the poisonous tree” taint that makes everything about it seem dubious. Diverting from facts in a film with subject matter as important as this makes it too easy for the people it condemns to dismiss it as the cinematic equivalent of fake news, especially when it includes things like an outrageously racist and black-girl-groping white police officer.
Difficulties With the Banality of Evil
Lee already would have had a winning hand if he had stuck to the simple character-study details of what really occurred, even though Stallworth’s actual investigation did not result in a single arrest. (The real Stallworth exposed some Klansmen as members of the military, stopped the local chapter from obtaining weapons from an Army base, and prevented some cross burnings.) Stacking the deck with made-up material for the sake of adding romantic tension, hitting an easy anti-Semitism target, blowing things up, and convicting some nasty perps ends up being self-defeating.
Topher Grace appears as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, with whom Stallworth has regular phone conversations while pretending to be a supporter. The role could have used someone with at least hint of menace and more calculated smarts behind Duke’s bland amiability.
Much is made of how Duke hopes to mainstream racism by making it more respectable, paving the way for someone who embodies his principles to win the White House. Comparisons to the later rise of Donald Trump, in other words, are about as subtle as a 40-acre brushfire.
At the opposite end of the banality-of-evil spectrum, Jasper Pääkköönen is viciousness incarnate as Colorado Springs KKK bad boy Felix. Felix’s plus-size wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) enthusiastically overacts her way through the movie’s third-act baloney. Paul Walter Hauser is the group’s aggravatingly stupid Ivanhoe, who is too cartoonishly dumb to be pathetic, while Ryan Eggold is the unexpectedly low-key chapter head Walter Breachway.
Harry Belafonte is excellent in the small role of Jerome Turner, who recounts the story of witnessing a brutally savage lynching as a young man. The scene is hammered in, but Belafonte makes it genuinely moving.
Less Would Have Been More
Lee belabors the “racism bad” message with opening and closing scenes that are only thematically related to Stallworth’s story. Alec Baldwin appears in an opening vignette as a hate-spewing mid-century anti-integration fanatic being filmed as he rails against everything from the “Jewish controlled” Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision to black rapists and murderers.
Tacked onto the end of the film is disturbing real news coverage of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, including footage of the car that plowed into counter-protesters and killed one. While this makes the obvious point that race hatred still exists in America (and mocks Trump with his own words by including what many regard as his insufficient condemnation of it), the segment is the equivalent of ending an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes” with footage from a concentration camp.
A previously unreleased and powerful Prince rendition of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” plays over the closing credits. Featuring only Prince’s voice and piano, the song is proof that less can be more, in case the rest of the movie didn’t already deliver that message.