Editor: First in a new series by our producer-at-large, USC film school grad Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., that looks at a movie based on a book.
He begins with the recent feature film “BlackKkKlansman,” co-written and directed by Spike Lee, based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth by the same title.
It’s R-Rated and definitely NOT for the family audience.
Set against the idyllic mountains of 1970s Colorado Springs, “BlackKkKlansman” tells the real life story of Ron Stallworth, police officer and the Jackie Robinson of his profession. Stallworth put up with a tremendous amount of discrimination in breaking the color barrier for black detectives in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Prior to going onto a long and distinguished career in law enforcement, Stallworth infiltrated the city’s growing chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.
The set piece of both the memoir and film begins when the department quickly promotes Stallworth (played by John David Washington (HBO’s “Ballers”; yes, Denzel’s son) from archival work to the more enviable intelligence division. Upon discovering a promotion for the KKK in the local newspaper, Stallworth leaves a message for the answering machine. To his surprise, the local knight calls him back and invites him to meet some of the other Klansman. His first investigation begins. Stallworth’s colleagues are less impressed and in fact are amused at the phone call … Stallworth accidentally gave his real name. Rookie mistake! As KKK members would never accept someone not of their own skin color, it will be up to Stallworth’s Jewish partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of Stallworth, while the real Stallworth will continue to supply his own voice.
As you probably have gathered by now, Stallworth’s memoir achieves an absurdist, yet comedic vibe. The film’s best attribute lies in Spike Lee’s ability to pull off this very tone. Phone conversations between the real Stallworth and Grand Knight, David Duke (Topher Grace), are guffaw-inducing and would be more hilarious, if not for the racist content serving as a disturbing undertone. Real-life encounters between Zimmeran’s “Stallworth” and Klan members are well-executed by Driver. He quite capably feigns a racist persona for the sake of the investigation. Both characters, in effect, do as Christ did, not fighting ugliness with more ugliness, but absorbing some of the worst parts of their enemies and turning it against them, exposing evil for what it is. “Infiltrate hate,” the tagline goes of the film goes. Not “flee” or “fight” hate as the world often demands.
The biggest addition to the film, not found anywhere in the memoir is the romance between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a fictitious Colorado College student and leader of the school’s Black Student Union. This subplot was to enhance Stallworth’s character: he’s sympathetic to his people’s cause and even smitten with Dumas, but nonetheless doesn’t fall in with the militant means of affecting change that at times, plagued civil rights activism.
The better story lies in reality, however. In his memoir, Stallworth recounts a concurrent episode where a 15-year-old black boy named David Scott Lee murdered a young white male outside a 24-hour diner. Stallworth agreed with the conviction as it was a clear cut, cold-blooded murder. The local predominately black Baptist church took issue with the ruling and, in what Stallworth felt was a desperate plea for self-promotion, invited Dr. Ralph David Abernathy (successor to MLK as Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader) to bring attention to the closed case and thus, their church. Stallworth warned Abernathy of his being co-opted by the local church.
Lee makes no mention of this story. It’s a shame, because the real-life Stallworth rose above partisan politics, living out his profession in terms of right and wrong, the criminals and the innocent, irrespective of whether they wear police blues or not. Lee on the other hand, can’t quite seem to extricate himself from seeing the world solely in black and white, ending the film with an upside down Old Glory drained of its Red, White and Blue. The film ends on a downer, whereas the real-life Ron Stallworth provided hope. The reality of his memoir, it seems, is indeed better than the historical fiction of the movie.
Image: Courtesy Focus Features
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