BLACKkKLANSMAN (Spike Lee, 2018)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Sunday, November 25, 2:00
Series runs through January 8
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best fiction film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a comic thriller inspired by the real-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado cop who went undercover with the KKK. “Dis joint is based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t,” the movie announces at the start. Stallworth, wearing an impressive natural afro, is hired by Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to diversify the force. When the police hear that Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, now using the name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Colorado College Black Student Union, the chief and Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito) send Stallworth in to scout out the situation. There he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a dedicated activist fighting the racist system, with a particular dislike for cops. Seeing an ad for the KKK in the local paper, Stallworth proposes to his bosses that he infiltrate the secretive organization, and they come up with a plan in which Stallworth will gain intelligence over the phone, speaking with local KKK leaders. The only problem is that Stallworth, in a major rookie mistake, used his real name when first talking to Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), which complicates the operation. But they proceed, as Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) insinuates himself into the group in person, applying for membership and trying to find out about any future marches, cross burnings, or other attacks, gaining the trust of the straightforward Breachway and the goofy Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), while the nasty Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) quickly grows suspicious of him. In the meantime, Stallworth develops a phone friendship with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) and begins dating Dumas, while Kendrickson’s wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), desperately wants to prove her racism by participating in the KKK’s schemes — which are explicitly limited to “white Christian men.”
Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee, BlacKkKlansman takes plenty of liberties with the facts — for example, Stallworth has never identified his white partner, Dumas is a fictional character (although based on Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver), and the time shifts a few years ahead — but the heart and soul of the story is true, and Lee captures it with gusto. The film is wickedly funny and frighteningly realistic, all too relevant to today’s rising racist hatred around the world. As Dumas teaches Stallworth about his responsibility to the black race, Stallworth does the same with Zimmerman about his Jewishness. “Why you acting like you don’t have skin in the game?” Stallworth asks him. Photographed by Chayse Irvin and edited by Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman is also one of Lee’s best-looking, most-accomplished films, featuring a terrific score by Terence Blanchard along with songs by such diverse musicians as James Brown, Prince, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Looking Glass, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Washington — who played a student in Lee’s Malcolm X, starring his father, Denzel Washington — and Driver have a great chemistry that propels the film, which was released on the first anniversary of the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Several lines of dialogue specifically evoke what his happening in America today, and Lee seals the deal with a finale that includes footage of Duke and President Trump refusing to condemn what went down in Virginia on August 12, 2017. (He also has Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin play a not-too-bright white supremacist; actually, none of the racists is endowed with much intelligence.) As is his trademark, Lee pulls no punches; especially effective is how he switches between Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) relating the true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington and the Klansmen watching D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Because, of course, we all have a skin in this game. BlacKkKlansman is screening November 25 at 2:00 in MoMA’s annual series “The Contenders,” consisting of works the museum believes will last the test of time, which continues through January 8 with such other 2018 films as Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (followed by a discussion with Neville and producer Nicholas Ma), Paul Dano’s Wildlife (followed by a discussion with Dano, cowriter Zoe Kazan, and actors Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal), Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (followed by a discussion with Shrader and Ethan Hawke), and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (followed by a discussion with Krasinski).