It’s almost too unbelievable to be true: in a sleepy Colorado town in the early 70s, a black cop infiltrates the local KKK chapter and works-up the chain of command to David Duke, the grand wizard.
Now, skip ahead to 2018 where the figurehead of America’s highest office in the nation regards Duke’s ideological progeny as “very fine people.”
Spike Lee’s latest joint (in a co-production with the multifaceted talent, Jordan Peele) juxtaposes exactly that, inspired by the 2014 memoir of Ron Stallworth, the first African American cop hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department who went undercover to infiltrate the white nationalist group in the early 70s.
Through Stallworth’s phone conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace), we learn that Duke has lofty political ambitions, echoing an eerily-familiar, modern-day manifestation of Washington, D.C.’s divisive policy and rhetoric. Throughout the film, Lee alludes to numerous other parallelisms, culminating in the final, chilling scene of news footage from last summer in Charlottesville, vague for the sake of spoilers. Throughout the film, racist dog-whistles such as “America First” are tossed-off with deep irony and deeper introspection.
Stallworth, played by John David Washington in a role that highlighted his strengths (a cool, smooth Denzel Jr.), begins his undercover assignment at Colorado College at a speech by Kwame Ture (nee’ Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins), where he falls for the president of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Courtship scenes propose philosophical debates about race in America such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness.
Cinephile Lee weaves the fabric of American cinematic history into the film, which opens with the famous scene from “Gone with the Wind” as Scarlett O’Hara rushes through a sea of wounded Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Atlanta. A later scene crosscuts a KKK viewing party of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” with a chilling, evocative lynching anecdote told by Harry Belafonte to the Black Student Union crowds.
While Stallworth disguises his voice as “white” on the phone with the KKK and Duke, he sends his white colleague, Flip Zimmerman, (Adam Driver) to play him in the flesh, replete with a wire. So do the cops complete the KKK sting? Go see the movie to find out! It’s definitely up there with Lee’s best films, intersected with irony and humor painted in broad strokes, including the final sobering montage, which serves as a timely reminder: in this new era of a divided nation and divisive policy, stay woke and infiltrate hate – or history’s doomed to repeat itself!