Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
What is it about true stories that always seem more incredulous than anything our imaginations tend to conjure? Even with the fair number of creative liberties taken, the idea of a rookie African-American police officer, assisted by a Jewish fellow officer, infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan during the civil rights movement of the 1970’s and successfully preventing a terrorist attack seems about as likely as me gaining superpowers and building a condo on the moon. And yet, that’s precisely what the real Ron Stallworth did. And as such, it was only a matter of time before his amazing story was brought to the screen, and who better to do so than the dream team of director Spike Lee and producer Jordan Peele.
Lee can be a bit hit or miss as a director, but Peele seems to have the midas touch of late. And the combination here leads to a skillfully crafted and stupendously entertaining film. There are many ways this story could have been told, but the filmmakers cleverly decided to embrace the apparent absurdity of the basic idea to craft a tone that highlights this while never undercutting its seriousness. Thus, the film is surprisingly funny, with often whimsical performances and a bit of a wink to the camera throughout. This works especially well to help the audience engage with the severe level of racist actions and slurs bandied about far too casually by most of the white characters. As the film steadily raises the stakes, constricting the tension and placing Stallworth deeper into the Klan’s world, that touch of lightness is key, because we as the audience begin to feel more and more uncomfortable, if not downright sickened, by many of the events and language. This deft hand doesn’t excuse or endorse such behavior, but keeps it at a level where the audience continues to enjoy the film as a whole, and makes Stallworth all the more heroic for overcoming.
The task of honoring the story and the man falls onto the shoulders of John David Washington, known primarily from his role on HBO’s Ballers series. As the son of Denzel, the acting apple doesn’t seem to have fallen far from the tree, as Washington breathes humanity and humor into Stallworth. He plays the role as a man with a strong sense of justice and identity, yet still caught between worlds. With his perfectly coiffed afro and hip duds, he sports a contrasting “white voice” that works to both advantage and disadvantage. His burgeoning relationship with civil rights leader Patrice (Spiderman: Homecoming’s Laura Harrier) also places his support of his community at odds with his duty as an officer. It’s a role with a number of layers that provide depth to the character and opportunity for Washington to extend his range, whether it be comedy or drama, or more often than not, both simultaneously.
As quite literally his other half, Stallworth is supported by Flip Zimmerman, played by Star Wars’ Adam Driver. While Stallworth engages the Klan in phone conversation, Zimmerman acts as the “white face” for personal interactions. As a man of Jewish heritage, Zimmerman finds his assignment dredging up feelings and questions he hadn’t confronted before. Driver does a magnificent job of keeping Zimmerman on point even as he must spew no short amount of racist bile. But his chemistry and partnership with Washington allow for a support structure that keeps the narrative moving and the characters rich.
Rounding out the magnificent cast is a number of familiar faces. Alec Baldwin cameos at the beginning attempting to film racist propaganda, and Corey Hawkins (of 24:Legacy and Straight Outta Compton fame) delivers an enthralling speech establishing the African-American perspective. Topher Grace comes out of the woodwork as none other than David Duke, grand wizard. With his trademark boyish charm, he does evoke a certain level of charisma that would seemingly attract his acolytes, but he’s careful not to go too far, establishing that this is a man not to be admired, but to be vilified. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings) serves as the most direct villain of the piece, playing up both his menace and his ridiculousness in equal, potent measure. Rounding out the impressive cast is Nicholas Tuturro (Sopranos), Ryan Eggold (Blacklist), and even a rare cameo by Harry Belafonte, who delivers a sad and powerful story told juxtaposed with the white men’s horrific celebration.
All this may seem that the film is exceedingly preachy or in your face, a criticism sometimes leveled at Lee. But while there’s absolutely no doubt of the perspective here, the humorous tone works more to ease people into the cause rather than bludgeon. That being said, by the end of the film, Lee makes no bones about this story’s connection to our current political climate. The language of the Klan used throughout (with slogans like “America First” and “Make America Great Again,” to discussions of the seemingly absurd possibility of electing a racist to the White House) all pointedly show that the issues Stallworth was dealing with half a century ago are still very much present today. And the point being, that it will take blacks and whites working together against bigotry and hate to thwart those ambitions.
BlacKkKlansman is a film worth seeing, regardless of race, affiliation, or even opinions on Spike Lee movies. It’s effective storytelling, presenting a clear viewpoint in an entertaining package, with strong performances and some artistic cinematography. Parts of it might feel awkward, even disturbing, but that’s how it should be. But those moments, while important, are outmatched by an amazing story told with a gleeful exuberance.
YANG: Three Identical Strangers
You may think you’ve heard some whopper true tales before, but I can guarantee you’ve never heard one quite like this. On the surface, the documentary Three Identical Strangers seems like a remarkable story of how triplets were reunited after being separated at birth, but that’s merely the jumping off point.
It only gets stranger . . . and more disturbing.
Underneath it all is a story about nature versus nurture and the breakdown in ethics during a study of that debate with far-reaching moral, emotional, and ultimately mortal consequences.
The film begins with Robert “Bobby” Shafran recounting the improbable story of arriving at college in 1980 to dozens of greetings as “Eddy.” He soon discovers that Eddy is his identical twin brother, setting off a flurry of news coverage. And through that, yet another brother, David, learns that he’s the third! Reunited and feeling so good, the triplets become something of a phenomenon, going on talk shows and playing up their similarities, eventually even going into business together. If it ended there, it’d still be one helluva story. But the most disturbing was yet to come.
I want to be careful not to give too much away because it is such a twisting tale. But the underlying crux is that the seemingly randomness of the triplets separate adoptions turns out to be anything but. In fact, it was all carefully orchestrated as part of a larger experiment seemingly to test the limits of genetic influence versus environment. And worse, the boys here were not the only victims.
It all leads to the question about just how far will people go in the name of scientific pursuits? How much of anyone’s life, much less a trio as connected as here, is it permissible to influence for the sake of academic knowledge? The revelations within the doco itself are indeed incredible. The boys are certainly astoundingly similar far beyond the physical. Similar tastes in cigarettes, clothing, women . . . seemingly everything! But once the sheen of those superficial parallels are removed, we see that the differences are equally staggering. Each brother had very different upbringings, and as such very different views on life and, more importantly, how to deal with it. The almost whimsical tone of the first half of the film shifts decidedly darker as we realize the true victimization at work here. It’s not just about being denied the opportunity to establish relationships with your siblings, but being denied the chance to exist per your natural course.
As the brothers seek both answers and some sense of justice, they are further victimized by denials and obstructions at every turn. I suppose that’s not really surprising given the tenuous-at-best legal repercussions as stake. But what I found even more personally disturbing than the barriers was the cavalier attitudes of those involved. The late psychologist Dr. Peter Neubauer, head of the study, evoked parallels to Nazi experimentation on Jews in multiple ways, and not that long after WWII either. The reactions by the management of the Jewish adoption agency that placed the children is disturbing to say the least. But the worst is the decidedly unapologetic callousness of Neubauer’s assistant, Natasha Josefowitz, still alive and seemingly undisturbed by the consequences of the study, absolving it, Neubauer, and herself with inhuman detachment.
Director Tim Wardle has not only pieced together a fascinating revelation of a forcibly extended family, but raised important and disturbing questions. Though much is revealed in the film, it’s notable how much is left unexplored, unknown, perhaps never to be explained. It’s a testament to the power of the documentary to elucidate as it entertains, to force viewers to question and engage. If the tale had ended at the reunification of three long-lost brothers, it’s be an interesting anecdote, tucked away as trivia, or perhaps simply forgotten altogether. But with the disturbing revelations of such an undertaking not in Nazi Germany but here within the apparent safety of the United States, the film’s questions and observations linger with us long after the credits roll. And they should. Since perhaps the most important purpose of the film is to ensure this never happens to another family.