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.