I just watched this film, based on a true story, that is set in the town of Colorado Springs in 1978. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the town’s first black police officer who, pretending to be a white man, responds by phone to a newspaper advertisement placed by the Ku Klux Klan for new recruits. For actual meetings with the local KKK branch members, he sends in his colleague Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) who is Jewish. The two of them continue to play their parts as Stallworth, once the KKK people were satisfied that did not “have any Jew in him”, rises in the organization and he even becomes friends over the phone with David Duke, then the Grand Wizard of the KKK (played by Topher Grace).
Director Spike Lee makes little effort to hide the fact that this story is being used as a portent of what is happening in the US right now. He draws a fairly straight line from D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, through the KKK of David Duke, to Trump now, with Trump saying things like ‘America First’ and ‘make America great again’ that Duke had said first and repeatedly. Stallworth’s sergeant tells him that Duke is positioning himself to be more appealing as a mainstream candidate and that it may be just a matter of time until he or someone with similar views becomes president. Stallworth is skeptical that this will happen and the sergeant chides him for his naivete. To underline this point, Lee ends the film with a ten-minute montage of newsreel footage of recent events such as Charlottesville last year along with Trump’s ambivalent response to the actions of the neo-Nazis, saying that some of them were “very fine people”, and David Duke thanking Trump for his comments.
The film shows the growing awareness of Stallworth with his black identity and the conflicted role it plays as he belongs to a police force that is routinely racist in its actions towards people of color. Driver (whose performances in the Star Wars films I found underwhelming) turns in a strong performance as Zimmerman who, coming face to face with KKK members’ hatred of Jews, grapples with own growing sense of his Jewish identity, something that he had not thought much about before.
The film eschewed unnecessary action sequences and focused on the main story and it was fun to see again the period when giant Afros were the vogue. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a review of this and another satirical film Sorry to Bother You (2018) that is worth reading. I did see Sorry to Bother You but found it a little too weird and out there for my taste.
Stefanie Marsh interviewed the real Ron Stallworth, whose book inspired the film.
Ron says that in the 1970s white extremism was considered weird and fanatical, but he’s shocked that it has now become mainstream. “If someone had predicted it back then, I’d have said they were out of their mind,” he says. “We’ve always had people in public office who were more middle ground. They work together. Trump, who is a billionaire, an ‘educated man’, essentially has the same message as Duke had on the phone. The very fact he equates Neo-Nazis [after Charlottesville] as ‘very fine people…’”
As for the film, he says: “Spike’s take on the book is pretty accurate,” Ron says. “I got a lot of joy from telling my story.” I can hear him smiling on the other end of the phone.
He still has his Klan membership card as a memento from what he says was the most enjoyable episode of his long police career.
I enjoyed the film. The cameo appearance by civil rights and music legend Harry Belafonte was a nice bonus.
Here’s the trailer.