*Warning-this review contains multiple spoilers to the plot and ending of the film*
There’s a scene at the end of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a baptist church, where the segregationist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace is interviewed. Wallace was quite old and visibly frail at the time (he passed away in 1998, a year after the documentary came out) and he tries to highlight the positive things that he did as governor, including providing free textbooks to African-American schoolchildren who couldn’t afford it. An African-American man who knew Wallace said that when you were alone with him one-on-one, he was the nicest man you’d ever meet, but when the cameras and the political spotlight was on him, it was a different story. The interview ends with Wallace calling forward his caretaker and aide, an elderly African-American man named Eddie Holcey and while holding his hand repeatedly says that he is his best friend. Holcey, visibly uncomfortable, stands there holding his hand and then tries to move out of the frame. The scene is incredibly powerful and memorable (after 20 years it’s still burned into my memory), but in a way it feels out of the place in the documentary. You get the sense that the footage was so good, showing how broken this once-powerful man was, that Lee couldn’t resist including it in the film. The scene also serves to humanise this racist monster of a man, who was implicit in the deaths of the four little girls that the film is about and so much more. Wallace is practically pleading to the camera for history to remember him kindly, and even though it won’t, nor should it, you can’t help but feel empathy for him. There’s a scene at the end of Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansmen that shows a montage of footage from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last August and the violent attack against counter-protestors where a man drove a car through the crowd and killed Heather Heyer. Similar to the Wallace scene in 4 Little Girls it’s incredibly powerful and visceral but feels even more out of place in this movie. Lee is trying to draw a line between the fictionalised depictions of the KKK of the 1970s in the movie and what the deadly real-life result is in the end. The footage is undeniably powerful and Terence Blanchard’s score, beautiful on it’s own-but not quite fitting throughout the movie, is used to great effect during that end sequence. The movie is problematic because so much of what we see before that end sequence is so sloppily put together.
The plot of the movie is the semi-true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who was the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. After suffering through working in the records room and having to deal with a particularly racist cop, Stallworth gets to do some investigative work and is assigned to go undercover at a meeting of the Black Student Union where Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, is speaking. He meets the president of the student union, a young woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a romantic plotline is built around that. Stallworth sees an advertisement for the local KKK chapter and decides to call and pretend to be white and interested. A meeting is set up and since Stallworth obviously can’t attend it because of the colour of his skin, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent and pretends to be him. Their investigation into the KKK leads them to discover a terrorist plot where they are planning on bombing the Black Student Union, and in the process Stallworth manages to become phone buddies with David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand master of the KKK, who comically doesn’t realise he’s discussing white supremacy with an African-American cop.
One of the main problems of the movie is that the filmmakers take such liberties with the actual facts of the story that most of the plotline feels completely implausible. In real life Stallworth did speak to the KKK and Duke on the phone, while his partner pretended to be him in person but in the film the two actors sound almost nothing alike. Flip’s character has none of the charisma that Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth has which makes them pretending to be the same person even more implausible. The depiction of the klansmen are almost all played for laughs and most of them are presented as painfully stupid or at the very least inept. This depiction of them strangely serves to render them harmless. The characters are saying the most vile racist things and planning out terrorist attacks, but because they’re presented as so comically inept, their sense of danger is removed. As the climax approaches with the attempted bombing, the stakes are surprisingly low because you don’t think these fools can actually pull it off (and of course they don’t, some of the more vile KKK characters end up getting killed and another is arrested).
Topher Grace’s performance of David Duke is a great light-hearted mockery of the man and there is something to be said for stripping a dangerous person of his power by making him slightly buffoonish, but it’s then quite striking when you see footage of the real David Duke at the end of the film. The real Duke is dangerously charismatic (you don’t climb the ranks of an organisation like that without a real sense of charisma) but to see the juxtaposition of the real Duke and Topher Grace’s version of him is quite jarring. Imagine if Chaplin showed actual footage of Hitler at the end of The Great Dictator?
The biggest problem of the movie is that it plays directly to the liberal audience that’s watching it and doesn’t challenge them at all. There is a scene in the middle of the film where a white police officer is telling Stallworth how David Duke is trying to change the perception of the KKK to normalise it so that eventually they will have someone sympathetic to their cause as the President of the United States. Stallworth says that will never happen and the other officer chastises him and tells him to wake up. The scene is played for cheap laughs given the current occupant of the Oval Office but it feels completely out of place in the film. Are we to believe that a black man in 1970s America doesn’t think that America could produce a racist president? These events are taking place while Richard Nixon is the sitting president after deploying the “Southern Strategy” to gin up support by appealing to racism against African-Americans like Stallworth. The scene isn’t meant to make logical sense and is so ham-fisted that it wouldn’t be out of place if the characters turned to the camera and winked to the audience. There is also a subplot of a token “bad cop” named Andy Landers, (Frederick Weller) that doesn’t seem fully thought-out. Landers seems to take pleasure out of roughing up African-Americans and in one scene he goes so far as to feel up Patrice after he pulls her over. Stallworth asks his colleagues why they don’t report Landers and Flip says they’re a family and they protect their own. True enough, but then inexplicably towards the end of the film there is a scene when the cops, Flip included, set up Landers and take him down. When Stallworth shows up to work the next day, he struts down the hallway and his fellow cops are giving him high-fives. Are we to believe that there is only a single truly racist cop in a Colorado Springs police department in the 1970s and the only African-American officer takes him down and is treated like a hero? This scene and so much of the movie completely lets the audience off the hook. A liberal audience member (the only people that would likely see the movie to begin with) watches that scene and can be happy that the one “bad apple” cop has rightfully received his comeuppance.
The movie is meant to be an homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and the liberties taken with the story and presenting Stallworth as an unparalleled hero fit that but the more heavy-handed connections to present day America are what make this movie so problematic. America, and so much of the world, is clearly going through a racial crisis at the moment and Spike Lee could be the perfect artist to address this, but unfortunately he fails spectacularly with this movie. The visceral montage of the Charlottesville rally at the end of the film highlights what a missed opportunity the film that came before it represents. Similar to what he achieved with 4 Little Girls or his documentaries about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise), if Lee used his skills as a documentary filmmaker instead it might result in a more focused artistic effort tackling the same issues head-on.