Based on the true (ish) story of the first black policeman in Colorado Springs (1970) who goes undercover with the help of his white Jewish colleague to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
John David Washington (the astonishingly similar son of Denzil) plays the lead role of Ron Stallworth who faces down institutional racism from the police force and is determined to prove himself. After going undercover at a Black Power rally, he then joins the intelligence department and makes contact with the local Ku Klux Klan over the phone. Clearly, he cannot meet the group in person and so enlists the services of fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him in person.
The film does take some liberties with the truth in the name of drama, although I understand that the elements which seem the most unbelievable (and there are many) are in fact true.
The Klan is portrayed as incompetent and suspicious. Lead by Dave Duke (Topher Grace) the Trump-like flattery driven figurehead, the Klan welcome those who share their prejudice and hatred but are constantly testing the new members for their commitment to the cause. This leads to some terrifically tense moments as Adam Drivers cop is forced to negotiate the various traps set for him by the crazed figure of Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen).
We see the Klan watching DW Griffith’s 1915 The Birth Of A Nation (a silent movie that portrays Klansmen as heroes) as if they were watching a football game. This is counterbalanced by the harrowing true story of the death of teenager Jesse Washington, told by an old-timer, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), who was there when it happened.
Spike Lee takes a similar approach to the drama as Scorsese did in Goodfellas, using comedy in amongst the violence and serious political elements of the story. This works well and helps the film to keep up its urgency and avoids descending into very bleak subjects for too long. Aided by superb performances all round especially Washington and Driver, the film is a great success.
Spike Lee has delivered one of his best films about a very important subject which is particularly relevant at the moment. He expertly shows how history is repeating itself with the Trump Presidency leading to new violent clashes breaking out across the United States.
Rating – 8/10
Should you go and see it – Yes, great performances and powerful drama in a chilling story of how despite heroic efforts in the past to overcome hatred and prejudice, we still face the same dangers today.