© Universal Pictures International Germany GmbH

U.S.A. 2018

Opening 23 Aug 2018

Directed by: Spike Lee
Writing credits: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, Ron Stallworth
Principal actors: Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin, John David Washington, Ryan Eggold

Based on his autobiography Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, the film is set in the early 1970s. Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective hired by the Colorado Springs police department. After a less-than-welcoming reception and a menial assignment to the records room, his request for undercover work is denied. Eventually he is recruited to blend in at a lecture given by Kwame Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), sponsored by the black student union at the local university. His assignment is to assess the impact of the speech on the local African-American community, so he strikes up a relationship with the student union president, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Not seeing much to follow up on with that case, he is back at his desk when he decides to respond to a classified ad for the Ku Klux Klan, posing as someone interested in joining the organization, spewing all the hateful, racist rhetoric needed to elicit their interest in him.

For obvious reasons, Stallworth cannot participate in face-to-face meetings with the local Klan chapter, so detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is chosen for this role. The fact that Zimmerman is Jewish adds a bit of irony to the plot, and also arouses the suspicion of one of the Klansmen. It also creates an awakening in Zimmerman who was not raised religiously and never thought about being Jewish. Stallworth continues all phone contact with the Klan, eventually even reaching David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand wizard of the KKK. Duke decides to attend the induction ceremony of new chapter members during which some extremist members of the chapter plan to carry out a plot to kill Patrice Dumas. The tension created by the toggling of scenes between a narrative by Harry Belafonte on a lynching and the induction ceremony is very powerful and heartbreaking.

Throughout the film there are many familiar statements that we are unfortunately hearing today. For a brief moment it appeared that the film was headed to a happy ending, which would have been unfortunate given current events. However, that was not the case and it served as quite an appropriate analogy. Recall the euphoria exhibited in 2008 when many thought that, perhaps, the U.S. had finally turned a corner on its troubled race relations only to see it devolve into the hatred being expressed today. It is a shame that we can’t look at a film reflecting a time in our past and be able to say, look how far we’ve come. A powerful film, well worth seeing. (Anne Crocker)

Second Opinion

What can we make of this intriguing title, which is based on a true story, based on the book BlacKkKlansman by Ron Stallworth, and which is surely a contradiction in terms?

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. He does this in the 1970s when the Black Power movement is gaining momentum among America’s disenfranchised black people. As a rookie policeman, Ron is given mundane tasks to do and must put up with hostility from his white fellow police officers. He is unhappy and frustrated and wants more interesting assignments than checking police files. When he is promoted to the Intelligence Department, he happens upon an advertisement about the Ku Klux Klan. He phones the number printed in in the newspaper hoping to gain some information about the organisation. To his surprise, he is invited to meet members of the fledging group but he faces a dilemma. He is black, of course, and so he must persuade a white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate him and attempt to infiltrate the organisation.

Meanwhile, as part of a fact- finding investigation, the real Ron attends a Stokely Carmichael meeting as an undercover agent. During this assignment he starts to gain the respect of his fellow officers and also meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) a student activist and avid supporter of the Black Power movement. At the same time the pretend Ron meets the motley crew who make up the KKK members and soon gets wind of a plot to blow up Black Power supporters. Before long the real Ron phones the Klan’s headquarters hoping to speed up his membership process. To his amazement he finds himself speaking to David Duke, the Grand Wizard himself, and pretends to be flattered when Duke (Topher Grace) says that he will personally initiate him into the organisation. They meet when the real Ron is ordered to be Duke’s bodyguard during his visit to Colorado Springs and he is able to watch the ceremony where the pretend Ron is received into the Klan.

Watching a Spike Lee movie is never an easy thing to do and this one is no exception. It begins and ends with hateful ideas and vile words. During the movie you are on the edge of your seat as you wait for a) the pretend Ron to be exposed by the Klansmen and b) the murderous plot to kill activists to take place. No-one will deny that Mr. Lee is a master at engaging our emotions, but this movie leaves you wondering what he means to achieve apart from that. It would have been improved by offering the audience something more than a sense of moral outrage. (Jenny Mather)

The theaters below show films in their original language; click on the links for showtimes and ticket information.
Interviews with the stars, general film articles, and reports on press conferences and film festivals.
Subscribe to the free KinoCritics monthly email newsletter here.