“God never wrote a good play in his life” – Kurt Vonnegut.
When a movie has actors reciting dialog written by a screenwriter, it’s a work of fiction. It can’t be anything else, even if it was based on something that really happened. Life doesn’t work like a well-told story. If you want facts, watch a documentary.
Spike Lee based his current film, BlacKkKlansman, on Ron Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman. I loved the film, a comedy-laced police thriller set in the 1970s. On one level, it’s a very entertaining movie – suspenseful and funny. But it’s also a serious study of American racism and anti-Semitism, and the different ways that blacks and Jews deal with bigotry. I gave it an A.
Lee and his screenwriting collaborators – Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott – altered the story considerably. When you compare the history to the fiction, you can clearly see why they made their choices – and why those choices were the right ones.
I haven’t read the book. If you want to quickly know what is historically true, read this Slate article by Jasmine Sanders or this PolitiFact article by Manuela Tobias. I want to discuss why the fiction improved the film.
I’m assuming you’ve already seen the movie. If you haven’t, see it before you read this article.
Stallworth’s White Partner
In the book, Stallworth doesn’t identify his partner – the one who had to look the Klansmen in in their eyes and pretend to be one of them. Was he Jewish? Probably not. “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is a completely fictitious character.
Making the partner Jewish was a brilliant decision on more than one level. Hanging out with the Klan becomes dangerous, adding to the movie’s suspense. One Klansman suspects his ethnicity, to the point of insisting that he either takes a lie-detector test or pull down his pants.
But as Flip pretends to be an anti-Semite, he privately becomes more Jewish. He admits to Stallworth that he never really thought of himself as Jewish (Ashkenazi Jews can pass much more easily than blacks), and he starts practicing religious rituals.
Up until I saw this movie, I could name only three Hollywood films that dealt with American (as opposed to European) anti-Semitism: Crossfire, Gentleman’s Agreement (both 1947), and School Ties (1992). Studio heads have, for a long time, shied away from the topic, Spike Lee didn’t shy away.
The Romantic Subplot
BlacKkKlansman is unquestionably a commercial film, sticking to genre tropes whenever possible (nothing to be ashamed of). And one important commercial genre trope is the romantic subplot. So, Lee and his collaborators created one.
They did a good job of weaving the romance into the story. Patrice (Laura Harrier) a not just pretty young thing attracted to Stallworth (John David Washington). She’s a radical, with clothes and hair that screams “I want to be Angela Davis!”
Her politics becomes a major roadblock on the path to romance. Black radicals of the ’70s didn’t hook up with cops. As she puts it, it feels like “sleeping with the enemy.” The fact that he was secretly “the enemy” when they first met makes things worse. The screenwriters were smart to leave the relationship up in the air.
The Big Action Climax
In real life, Stallworth and the police thwarted a Klan plan to firebomb several gay bars. The screenwriters knew the film needed something flashier, so they had the Klan build a powerful, remote-control bomb. Nothing like a big fireball for a climax…especially when only the bad guys get hurt.
Why did the screenwriters replace gay bars with the Black Student Union? My guess: So that Harry Belafonte could give a lecture, and so that Patrice could be put in danger.
Lee also added the element of police violence at the climax, both adding suspense and reminding us that black men, even when they’re on the force, are always in danger from the police.
Happy, and Not-So-Happy Endings
After the big climax, Lee gives us two moments of unlikely but enjoyable fun. In one, Stallworth speaks on the phone with David Duke, and tells the Klan leader that he’s black. The moment gets laughs and cheers, as it should. (The real Duke didn’t find out about the ruse until decades later.)
The other is even less likely. Stallworth, Patrice, and a bunch of nice white policemen trick the racist cop (Frederick Weller) into bragging about his horrible deeds while being recorded. He’s taken away in cuffs. Another big moment of laughs and cheers, even if it’s extremely unlikely.
But Lee and his writers left one important piece of not-so-happy actual history. The authorities ordered the detective to close the investigation and destroy all of the evidence. Someone in power was supporting the Klan.
As Lee reminds us with the news montage at the end of film, the fight continues.