By Mike Scott
I was born and raised in New Orleans. It’s not easy to shock me. But not even I was prepared for a recent encounter at a local grocery store.
There I was, absorbed in the task of trying to find an honest dozen eggs, when I looked up. Standing in front of me was David Duke.
Yes, that David Duke — the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the longtime poster boy for white supremacy and the face of hate in America.
I froze momentarily, but not out of fear. David Duke holds no power over me. But an unexpected, in-the-flesh encounter with that sort of notoriety isn’t the type of thing most decent-minded people are prepared to process easily.
Granted, Duke — who, incidentally, left the grocery that day in a car that was both white and of German manufacture — isn’t nearly as prominent a political player as he was back when he came a wispy blond hair’s breadth of winning the Louisiana governorship in 1991. Still, it’s pretty clear the brand of spiteful rhetoric that made his a household name is undeniably alive and well in America.
Anyone who doubts that needs to see director Spike Lee’s crackling new satire, “BlacKkKlansman.” In addition to being the most accessible and purely enjoyable of Lee’s film in years, it’s also one of his most important.
It’s based on the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who in 1979 — and this is, remarkably, true — infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Boasting the quirky but clever vibe of a Coen brothers film, “BlacKkKlansman” plays Stallworth’s story largely for laughs. How could it not? It’s utterly ridiculous.
This, however, is Spike Lee, a man who — for better or for worse — isn’t generally given to frivolity. So, beneath the well-deserved needling his film gives to the Klan, make no mistake: “BlacKkKlansman” matters.
Stallworth is played in the film by John David Washington, son of Denzel, who sets the whole crazy tale in motion when he responds by phone to a KKK recruitment ad in a local newspaper and convinces Klan leaders that he is a fellow racist. With help from a white fellow officer (named Flip Zimmerman and played by Adam Driver), who poses as Stallworth for face-to-face meetings with the Klansmen, he carries on a months-long undercover operation to monitor the group’s activities.
That operation includes phone conversations with Duke, then the KKK grand wizard (and who is played in the film by Topher Grace, complete with the ’70s pornstache Duke wore a few years too long). In Lee’s version of events, Grace’s Duke is impressed enough by Stallworth that he decides to travel from New Orleans to Colorado Springs to induct him into the group personally.
That presents obvious problems for Stallworth, but it’s nothing he and his fellow officers can’t figure a way around. Unsurprisingly, Duke and his cronies are portrayed in Lee’s film as utter boobs, which is fun. They deserve nothing less. (They also, for what it’s worth, deny the events of the film ever took place.)
As silly as it all sounds, though, the real masterstroke of “BlacKkKlansman” lies in the fact that it’s not really about David Duke at all.
Through brief dramatic monologues — most notably one by Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner and another by Corey Hawkins as Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture — as well as use of such slogans as “America first,” it becomes crystal clear what Lee’s film is really about: It’s about the Trump administration and President Donald Trump’s refusal to openly and vigorously repudiate the type of hateful rhetoric espoused by Duke and others.
Just to make sure his point isn’t lost on anyone, Lee ends his film with a brief coda that uses news footage to recount the deadly attack on counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. He also includes Trump’s reaction to that event, in which the president insisted there were “good people on both sides.” That’s followed by the image of an inverted American flag, a widely recognized sign of distress.
There’s a fair argument to be made that the closing segment is an example of overkill. But in addition to being the most poignant part of “BlacKkKlansman,” it neatly summarizes the very reason Lee — who co-wrote the screenplay with three others — made the movie in the first place. In so doing, he makes a well-argued and impossible-to-ignore point.
That point: While it might be tempting to laugh off David Duke as a has-been, he’s still relevant in America.
For what feels like the first time in years, so is Lee.
BLACKkKLANSMAN, 4 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: Spike Lee directs a dramatic comedy based on the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who in 1979 infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
What works: In addition to being one of Lee’s most enjoyable and accessible films in years, it’s also undeniably relevant.
What doesn’t: Lee unwisely allows the tone of his film to shift jarringly, swinging from goofy comedy in one scene to poignant drama the next, with apparently little interest in easing the transition.Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Paakonen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte. Director: Lee. MPAA rating: R, for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.
This story was originally published in August 2018 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.