Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Spike Lee|
|Based on||Black Klansman|
by Ron Stallworth
|Music by||Terence Blanchard|
|Edited by||Barry Alexander Brown|
|Distributed by||Focus Features|
|Box office||$88.6 million|
BlacKkKlansman is a 2018 American biographical comedy-drama film directed by Spike Lee and written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee, based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. The film stars John David Washington as Stallworth, along with Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, and Topher Grace. Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the plot follows the first African-American detective in the city's police department as he sets out to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The film is produced by Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Shaun Redick, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, and Jordan Peele. Redick purchased the film rights to the book in 2015, and Lee signed on as director in September 2017. Much of the cast joined the following month, and filming began in New York State.
BlacKkKlansman premiered on May 14, 2018, at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. It was theatrically released in the United States on August 10, 2018, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally. The film received acclaim from critics, with critics praising the performances (particularly of Washington and Driver) and timely themes, as well as noting it as a return to form for Lee. The American Film Institute selected it as one of the top 10 films of the 2018 and at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, it earned four nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama.
In the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth is hired as the first black officer in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department. Stallworth is initially assigned to work in the records room, where he faces racial slurs from his coworkers. Stallworth requests a transfer to go undercover, and is assigned to infiltrate a local rally at which national civil rights leader Kwame Ture (birth name Stokely Carmichael) is to give a speech. At the rally, Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas, the president of the black student union at Colorado College. While taking Ture to his hotel, Patrice is stopped by patrolman Andy Landers, a corrupt, racist officer in Stallworth's precinct, who threatens Ture and sexually assaults Patrice.
After the rally, Stallworth is reassigned to the intelligence division. While reading the paper, he finds an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth calls and pretends to be a European American man, and speaks with Walter Breachway, the president of the Colorado Springs chapter. Stallworth recruits his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, to act as him in order to meet the Ku Klux Klan members in person. Zimmerman attends a meeting and meets Walter, along with the more reckless member Felix Kendrickson. Zimmerman also speaks with another member named Ivanhoe, who cryptically refers to an upcoming attack.
Zimmerman and Stallworth continue to cultivate their relationship with the local Klan chapter. Calling Klan headquarters in Louisiana to expedite his membership, Stallworth speaks with David Duke, the Grand Wizard, with whom he begins regular conversations on the phone. Kendrickson suspects Zimmerman of being Jewish, and plans to make him take a polygraph test at gunpoint, but Stallworth throws a rock through the Kendrickson family window to distract the Klansmen. Stallworth begins dating Patrice, but does not tell her that he is a police officer. After passing on information to the Army CID about active duty members, he learns from a meeting with an FBI agent that two of the chapter's members are military personnel stationed at NORAD headquarters.
Duke visits Colorado Springs for Stallworth's induction into the Klan; over the real Stallworth's protests, he is assigned to a protection detail for Duke. After Zimmerman, masquerading as Stallworth, is initiated, Felix's wife Connie leaves the ceremony to place a bomb at Patrice's house during the civil rights rally. Stallworth realizes her intentions and alerts local police officers. Acting on Felix's backup plan, Connie tries to plant the bomb in Patrice's mailbox; finding that it will not fit, she leaves it under Patrice's car instead. Stallworth tackles her as she tries to flee, but uniformed officers detain and beat him despite his protests that he is working undercover. Felix, Ivanhoe, and bomb maker Walker (who had recognized Zimmerman from a prior arrest and conviction) arrive and park next to Patrice's car. They set off the bomb, not knowing where Connie had hidden it, and are killed in the explosion. Zimmerman arrives and frees Stallworth, and Connie is arrested. While celebrating the closed case that night, Stallworth wears a hidden microphone and tricks a drunken Landers into bragging about his assault on Patrice; with the confession on tape, Landers is arrested.
Police Chief Bridges congratulates the team for their successful operation, but orders them to end it and keep all details from the public. As he is packing up, Stallworth receives one last call from Duke. Stallworth reveals to Duke that he is a black man before hanging up as Zimmerman and the others watch on, laughing at their victory. Later, Patrice and Stallworth discuss their future together. They are then interrupted by a knock on the door, but no one is there. Through the hallway window, they see a large flaming cross on a distant hillside surrounded by Klan members.
The film closes with footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, including footage of the white supremacists, David Duke giving a speech to the attendees, counter-protesters, the car attack, and President Trump's statements after the events.
- John David Washington as Detective Ron Stallworth
- Adam Driver as Detective Flip Zimmerman
- Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas
- Topher Grace as David Duke
- Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix Kendrickson
- Ryan Eggold as Walter Breachway
- Paul Walter Hauser as Ivanhoe
- Ashlie Atkinson as Connie Kendrickson
- Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture
- Michael Buscemi as Jimmy Creek
- Ken Garito as Sergeant Trapp
- Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges
- Frederick Weller as Patrolman Andy Landers
- Nicholas Turturro as Walker
- Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner
- Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard
- Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Mr. Turrentine
- Damaris Lewis as Odetta
In July 2015 screenwriters/co-producers Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz discovered the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. They interviewed Stallworth and wrote a spec screenplay, then pitched the script to producers Shaun Redick and Ray Mansfield. They brought the property to QC Entertainment, which had co-produced the successful 2017 film Get Out. QC again teamed up with Jason Blum's company Blumhouse Productions, and Jordan Peele's company Monkeypaw Productions, to produce the project.
In September of that year, Spike Lee signed on as director and John David Washington was in negotiations to star. The following month, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, and Corey Hawkins had joined the cast. In November, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, and Ryan Eggold joined the cast, with Ashlie Atkinson joining a month later.
Harry Belafonte appears in the film recounting the lynching of Jesse Washington; according to Lee, he commanded his crew on the day of filming Belafonte's scene to dress to the occasion in suits and dresses to honor Belafonte.
On April 12, 2018, the film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered on May 14. It opened in the United States on August 10, 2018, which was chosen to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally.
Although based on a true story, the plot of the film is considerably more dramatic than the events of the book, and the time period has been shifted. Notably:
- As of the film's production, the true identity of Stallworth's partner is unknown; due to his face-to-face interaction with the Klan, he has never gone public with his story. It was Lee's decision to make him Jewish for dramatic purposes.
- The film takes place in 1972 but the actual events occurred in 1979.
- While the first third of the film is relatively accurate, the KKK's bomb plot is a fabrication to add dramatic tension; the real chapter that Stallworth and his partner infiltrated was primarily concerned with insinuating its members into high-ranking military positions. As a result of the investigation, four members of the US military were reassigned, with Stallworth joking that they were "sent to the North Pole."
BlacKkKlansman grossed $48.3 million in the United States and Canada, and $39.9 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $88.2 million, against a production budget of $15 million.
In the United States and Canada, BlacKkKlansman was released alongside Slender Man and The Meg, and was projected to gross around $10 million from 1,512 theaters in its opening weekend. It made $3.6 million on its first day (including $670,000 from Thursday night previews). It went on to debut to $10.8 million, finishing fifth at the box office and marking Lee's best opening weekend since Inside Man ($29 million) in 2006. It made $7.4 million in its second weekend and $5.3 million in its third, finishing seventh and eighth, respectively.
On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95% based on 355 reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "BlacKkKlansman uses history to offer bitingly trenchant commentary on current events—and brings out some of Spike Lee's hardest-hitting work in decades along the way." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 56 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it an 85% positive score and a 67% "definite recommend".
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film three out of five stars, writing: "It's an entertaining spectacle but the brilliant tonal balance in something like Jordan Peele's satire Get Out leaves this looking a little exposed. Yet it responds fiercely, contemptuously to the crassness at the heart of the Trump regime and gleefully pays it back in its own coin." For IndieWire, David Ehrlich gave the film a grade of "B+" and wrote that it is "far more frightening than it is funny," and "packages such weighty and ultra-relevant subjects into the form of a wildly uneven but consistently entertaining night at the movies."
A. O. Scott, writing for The New York Times, saw the film as both political and provocative in opening up discussion on timely subject matter following Charlottesville. He stated, "Committed anti-racists can sit quietly or laugh politely when hateful things are said. Epithets uttered in irony can be repeated in earnest. The most shocking thing about Flip's (Adam Driver's undercover detective role) imposture is how easy it seems, how natural he looks and sounds. This unnerving authenticity is partly testament to Mr. Driver's ability to tuck one performance inside another, but it also testifies to a stark and discomforting truth. Maybe not everyone who is white is a racist, but racism is what makes us white. Don't sleep on this movie".
In his review for Vulture, David Edelstein found the film to be a potent antidote for previous films which Lee sees as unduly supportive of the racist viewpoint in the past, such as Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. He stated: "Lee himself has a propagandist streak, and he knows nothing ever sold the message of white emasculation and the existential necessity of keeping blacks down as well as Griffith's 1915 film. It revived the Klan and—insult to injury—is still reckoned a landmark of narrative filmmaking. If there were no other reason to make BlackkKlansman, this one would be good enough."
Filmmaker Boots Riley, whose feature film debut Sorry to Bother You also premiered in 2018, took to Twitter on August 17 to criticize the film for its political perspective. While Riley acknowledged the craftswork of the film as "masterful" and cited Lee as a major influence on his own work, he felt that the film was dishonestly marketed as a true story, and criticized its attempts to "make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression," when Black Americans face structural racism "from the police on a day-to-day basis." In particular, Riley alleged that the film glossed over Stallworth's time spent working for COINTELPRO to "sabotage a Black radical organization," and objected to the film's choices to portray Stallworth's partner as Jewish and to fictionalize a bombing "to make the police seem like heroes." Lee responded in an interview with The Times on August 24, stating that while his films "have been very critical of the police... I'm never going to say that all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of colour." 
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