An unbelievable true story, some incredible filmmaking, and a sledgehammer of a political message combine to create one of the best films of the year.
The film follows the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He works undercover and one day responds to an ad placed by the local KKK in the newspaper. He phones in and continues talking to the head of the local KKK over the phone posing as a racist white man. Eventually he becomes a full fledged member in good standing. He sends in his partner, a white man, to play himself in person. Together they thwart cross burnings and foil violent demonstrations.
One of the most remarkable things about the movie is the way it blends and balances the inherent humor of the situation with the inherent horror of what it means. There was a black member who made a fool of the KKK. The irony of the situation is hilarious. There are scenes of high comedy as in the scene where Stallworth tries to teach his white partner how to speak more like him. Or the scene in which David Duke the grand wizard of the KKK explains to Stallworth why he Stallworth could never be black because of the inherent differences in white and black speech. It’s priceless. However at the same time they are dealing with deep hate and horrifying expressions of that hate. The way the film moves fluidly through those two extremes is masterful to watch.
It balances comedy and drama, social commentary and police procedural, a thriller and a love story. The fact that it never goes too far off the rails in any one direction is a tribute to the director Spike Lee’s ability to orchestrate a film. Too many movies these days try to blend satire and drama and they miss the mark. Vice, another film nominated for best picture, is a perfect example of a film that tries for this balance and totally misses the mark. Its satire is too broad. Its sincerity feels too cheap and unearned. This film makes that balancing act look easy.
The best sequence in the movie follows two scenes playing simultaneously. The KKK members sit down in a church basement to watch a screening of The Birth of a Nation. The film is about the formation of the KKK and the lynchings and murders that occurred after the Civil War. The film was released in 1916 and lead to a resurgence of the Klan. In this film the KKK members hoot and holler and celebrate the film and the horrors being depicted. This scene is cross cut with a gathering of a black student group as they listen to a man detail a real life lynching that occurred after the movie was released. Spike Lee uses the medium of film so beautifully here. He captures the contrast and delivers a message more powerfully than could ever have been delivered with words alone. This is a great sequence.
The film concludes with an incredibly hard hitting political message. It ties the entire story to recent events. It reminds the audience that although this story takes place in the past, it hasn’t passed. It remains horribly relevant today. The racism, the hatred, and the expression of that hatred is alive today. The message is a little too political for some, but the film is definitely worth seeing regardless.
This is a really good film and absolutely my cup of tea. Grade A