Ron Stallworth was a man of firsts.
He was the first black man to join the Colorado Springs police department. And in the 1970s, he was the first black officer to go undercover and wear a wire for that department. Ron was the first African-American to become an undercover intelligence officer. Oh, and he was also the first black Ku Klux Klan member … probably ever.
His interesting adventure in the ranks of this vile group begins when Ron spots an ad in the local newspaper. It suggests that anyone interested in the KKK need only drop a dime and give the organization a call for further information.
Ron does just that.
He says that he’s white, that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Asians. Hey, the KKK is all about hate, so Ron decides the best cover is just to say that he hates everybody. He also says he despises the idea that his innocent sister is dating a black man. That kind of nonsense has to stop, he declares.
Ron’s faux rage and racism instantly connect with the guy on the phone, a fellow named Walter. Ron, he says, is exactly the kind of person the KKK is looking for. In fact, Walter even has a feeling that Ron Stallworth is the kind of smart, articulate, focused white man who might someday be leadership material in the blossoming local ranks of “The Organization” (the current approved moniker for the Klan).
Now, all they have to do is meet in person.
Of course, there might just be a small problem with that.
Ron is a dedicated, good-hearted guy who wants to be a solid police officer. But that’s much more difficult than it might seem on the surface. He gets enough racist pushback from some in the 1970s police department to cause the average guy to walk away. But Ron grits his teeth and moves forward. He also has to be careful about what he says to black friends, who consider him a traitor to their community for joining the police.
Ultimately, Ron’s hard work uncovers the intended deadly actions of the local KKK chapter as well as exposing the politician and KKK Grand Master David Duke as the racist individual he is. In addition, Ron earns the respect and friendship of fellow white officers who might have been initially a little skeptical about the idea of a black police officer. In fact, white cops who initially state that they’d protect other cops even if they were racist, eventually take steps to remove a racist bad apple from their midst.
And, for the most part, Ron’s story suggests that looking past skin color and focusing on who people really are inside is the only way our society can survive. (That said, however, the film also includes other, more inflammatory commentary that we’ll unpack below.)
A prelude to the film presents a mock documentary of sorts. A white speaker cries angrily about all the foul ways he feels blacks and Jews have corrupted white society and its families-—stating that the very presence of the black race is a threat to “holy white Protestant values.” The faux docudrama also states that “white rule” is “God commanded.”
That spiritually twisted sentiment is definitely reinforced in the profanity-laced comments of the Ku Klux Klan members we meet. It’s also illustrated by a scene featuring a huge burning cross surrounded by kneeling, white hooded Klansmen raising their hands in religious fervor. In an official Klan meeting, David Duke addresses his fellows as “my brothers in Christ.” And as part of his cover, Ron tells KKK members that he listens to “Christian talk radio” every morning. But the only “Christians” depicted here are hate-filled racists. Lee fails to show us a single sincere believer who lives out his or her faith genuinely with love and compassion.
The song “Oh Happy Day” is used in the film’s soundtrack and includes the lyric, “When Jesus washed, He washed my sins away.” Several white policemen talk about a black civil rights activist’s speech, comparing it to a “Baptist church on Sunday morning.”
One of Ron’s fellow undercover cops, Flip, is Jewish, though he admits to “never really being very serious about it.” However, as Flip subs in as Ron’s white surrogate when dealing with the repulsive members of the Klan, he starts to reassess what his Jewish faith and heritage actually mean.
While other police officers aim guns at a small group of blacks, a bad cop spews out racist crudities and fondles a black woman from behind, rubbing himself up against her. He later aggressively and sexually approaches the same woman again before being stopped. A Klan member asks another man to expose his genitals to prove he’s not Jewish (something that doesn’t actually happen).
Director Spike Lee includes clips from the 1915 silent movie drama The Birth of a Nation in his storyline, arguing that the film’s violent images and dramatic perspective gave rebirth to the Ku Klux Klan, while also stirring up hatred and violence around the country. But Lee uses a similar storytelling approach himself, albeit from the opposite perspective. He shows us documentary-like footage of violent and brutal images, depicting modern groups of protestors brawling in the streets and a fevered madman driving his car into and over a crowd of defenseless people. Even as he denounces one director’s use of violent imagery as stirring up racism, then, he arguably does exactly the same thing.
Elsewhere C-4 explosive detonates, blowing up two cars and killing three people. Various people are held at gunpoint and beaten to the ground. A group of men hold target practice and shoot at metal cutout targets representing running black children. And they also shoot at an African-American in a car.
Klansmen talk regularly about the bloody carnage they hope to unleash upon blacks and Jews, and the rapturous feelings they experience while just thinking about such murder and torture. They discuss the “beauty” of the mass extinction in the holocaust (or deny it totally). They repeatedly talk about black men raping white women. An elderly black man tells the visceral story of a mentally challenged friend who was accused falsely of rape and burned alive in the city square. Along with hearing some very grisly details regarding that terrible crime, we’re also shown graphic postcards that memorialized the savage public event.
A civil-rights activist talks about the need for blacks to take up arms and prepare for the inevitable war between the races. And near its end, BlacKkKlansman symbolically illustrates that call by having Ron and a black student-activist love interest, Patrice, both pull guns and point them at the camera while visuals of modern day racism dominates the screen.
Nearly 50 f-words and 10 s-words are joined by 40 n-words. Jesus’ name is misused five times. God’s name is paired with “d–n” three times. We also hear multiple uses each of the words “a–,” “d–n,” “h—” and “b–ch.”
The film includes people spewing other offensive crudities related to the male anatomy, as well as contemptuous racial slurs for Jews, Mexicans and African-Americans.
Walter, Flip and other Klan members smoke regularly. They also drink lots of beers and liquor at their meetings (sometimes with firearms in their presence). Some cops celebrate with beers in a bar. Ron and Patrice drink wine at dinner.
The film depicts David Duke and the Klan as trying to temper their public actions in order to make the tenants of white supremacy palatable to the average American citizen. The film then subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) attempts to connect those same tactics and motives to certain modern politicians, such as our current president.
Patrice says she believes it’s impossible to peacefully root out police brutality and corruption; when it comes to dealing with racism, she believes violence is the only solution.
A compelling story, such as Ron Stallworth’s real-world undercover-cop tale, can draw you into it and make you think deeply about issues that you may never have thought about before. A well-crafted image can powerfully stir your emotions. And director Spike Lee knows exactly how to use that power to shape his message.
Early on, for instance, an ex-Black Panther turned civil-rights activist speaks before a packed room, expressing his thoughts about the beauty and grace of the black people. Lee skillfully captures images of listeners in the crowd—black and brown, young and old, men and women—wonderfully illustrating that impassioned assertion. It’s truly an uplifting and rewarding movie moment.
The problem is, Lee’s work here isn’t always aimed at being uplifting.
For the most part, BlacKkKlansman reflects upon the disturbingly vile mindset of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. It highlights the corrosiveness of racial hatred in any age. But the director also has another social and political drum to bang on as well.
Spike Lee tries to connect the KKK’s hateful actions in the past to politicians, conservatives and people of faith in the present. In doing so, his film offers a vivid—and disturbing—insight into what he apparently believes to be true. Ironically, it’s also a prejudiced indictment. Perhaps even worse, Lee’s story could be interpreted as a justification for angry violence. In the end, Spike Lee peddles a message that feels nearly as prejudicial as the one he strives to decry.
Well-crafted images are indeed powerful. And they stir people’s emotions. But anger, in all its enflamed and even cinematic variations, is an emotion that our world could definitely use a little less of.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.