Based* on a true** story, Black Klansman (I'm going to write it like that from now on because doing it the correct way is making me dizzy) tells the tale of Ron Stallworth, a black man who joins the Colarado Springs police department in the early 70s after it opens its doors to people of colour. But while the department is happy to hire Ron in order to comply with civil rights legislation, it's not willing to let him actually, you know, do anything. Having been first sidelined into the records office and then recruited to infiltrate black liberation groups, Ron makes a spur of the moment decision to go after the then-resurgent KKK.
After calling up Grand Wizard David Duke, Ron gets officially inducted into the ranks of the KKK, sending a white (and also Jewish, for added lulz) officer in his place whenever he needs to show up in person. As you can imagine, things get tricksy, Ron and his body double have to dodge various attempts by a paranoid KKK member to unmask them, and Ron tries to juggle his police work and a relationship with a very anti-police activist.
Black Klansman is, at heart, a small story, and it's told in an appropritely simple manner. The very first shot of the movie after a provocative prologue is Ron standing in front of the Colarado Springs PD, getting ready to apply for a job; we then skip neatly over his hiring and training to jump straight into the meat of the story. The rest of the movie follows this pattern, rarely taking time out for anything not directly relevant to the plot and even leaving Ron's wooing of his girlfriend largely off-screen except for moments where it becomes directly relevant.
I bring all this up because a lesser (and probably whiter) film-maker would doubtless have tried to turn this movie into a Sweeping Historical Epic that would provide a Portrait Of The Times, whereas Lee is content to let this singular story speak for itself. I can't help but compare it to Green Book--which I will find some way to dunk on in every single one of these posts even if I have to twist myself into a pretzel to do it--which focuses pretty much entirely on two characters and features almost no actual plot, and still feels bloated and over-stuffed.
There was only one aspect of Black Klandman's practical execution that I didn't like, and that was the varnish-thin layer of stylization applied to the movie. Opening titles inform us that the story is based on "some fo' real, fo' real shit"; a discussion between Ron and his girlfriend about contemporary blaxploitation movies is accompanied by their posters sliding on-screen. The thing is, despite what its trailers would have you believe, this isn't a hyper-stylized period piece, and while it has its funny moments, they're not nearly enough to classify it as a "comedy-drama". As such, these Quentin Taraninto-esque intrusions feel jarring. When it comes to this sort of thing, I think it's usually best to either go all the way or not go at all.
I honestly don't have a lot else to say about the film in terms of quality. It's a well-written, well-paced thriller/drama that's lean and tight in a way few "big" movies seem to be these days. If it didn't have Spike Lee's name in the credits and a cast of top-tier Hollywood actors, it could pass for the sort of unpretentious indie movie that gets all the critics at Fantastic Fest raving. And it delivers an unapologetic, full-throated political message whose particular execution I won't spoil
...All that said, lets talk about the police. By which I mean the cops, not the band.
This is, by the way, where I'm going to reveal myself to be a filthy lier by breaking my promise to not judge historical dramas on how accurately they conform to their inspirations.
In the aftermath of Black Klansman's release, Spike Lee came in for some criticism from other black creatives and pundits for what they percieved as a pro-police bias in the movie. A big part of Ron's character development is him trying to reconcile his job as an officer with his opinions as a black man in an America still convulsing from the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and it's all but directly stated that his decision to go after the KKK is an attempt to make these two facets of his life meet in the middle.
This is where I want to not say too much, because I'm not really interested in being That White Guy barging into a debate between black creatives and public figures about a subject of which I have no personal experience; all I'll say is that I see where the complaints are coming from especially given the changes made to the real Ron Stallworth's story, many of which cast the police force in an unambiguously positive light.
That aside, check out Black Klansman. This one deserved the win.