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From page to screen: BlacKkKlansman

The truth gets lost in the adaptation

The 2018 film adaptation of the true story misrepresents some of the core themes of the novel for the sake of tension.
Photo illustration: Genessa Gutzait · The Sentry

The plot of the latest director Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, sounds too outlandish to be true: The first ever African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department works in tandem with a white undercover detective, becomes a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, and befriends David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Klan, in an effort to disband the organization from the inside out. Lo and behold, Detective Ron Stallworth, and his story, are all true. Lee’s newest film adapts Stallworth’s 2014 autobiography of his time spent investigating the KKK here in Colorado.

It seems as though every time a movie is adapted from words on a page, fans of the novel will turn to their friends and say, “That wasn’t anything like the book!” Typically, novels have a slightly different structure than movies, causing screenwriters to need to shorten or change events. In the case of Black Klansman being turned into BlacKkKlansman, the entire structure had a Hollywood-sized makeover. New plotlines and characters were added to make for a vaguely recognizable version of the story. Scratch the civilized conversations with counter protesters and Stallworth’s internal battles about being a black cop in the 70s, replace with explosions, and add some impossible gender equality within the Ku Klux Klan.

Lee’s telling of Stallworth’s story focuses heavily on the violent nature of the Klan and the strength of the opposition groups challenging them—both of which were never noted by Stallworth in the autobiography. 

Once the in-person operative, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), meets the Klan members, their ignorantly dangerous nature shines. All of the men gather in basements to discuss their weapons and plans to use them against the local black community. The violence reaches a peak when the Colorado Springs KKK Den leader, Felix Kendrickson, (Jasper Paakkonen) sends his wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), to commit one of the most important acts of violence in the entire film. She sneaks across town to plant a bomb in the home of the president of the Colorado College’s Black Student Union, Patrice (Laura Harrier)—who is also conveniently Stallworth’s love interest.  Cue dramatic music, slow motion screaming and cars exploding.

Sorry to break it to fans of the Michael Bay style excessive action, none of this plotline existed according to Stallworth’s autobiography. He does not find himself chasing a woman sent to kill his girlfriend. If the KKK’s main point is that the only people that should find themselves in positions of power is white men, why would a woman be sent anywhere other than the kitchen? Stallworth also never comes face-to-face with any Klan member’s wife or even the BSU president, Patrice. Instead, his time is spent on the phone with Ken, the local Den leader, while the white undercover officer is introduced to the men of the Klan.

Lee depicts the Klan as most Americans picture them: confederate, tag-toting, ignoramuses that spew the N-word at every possible opportunity. Stallworth confirms that reality of the Klan but adds a lesser known aspect of the KKK: They acted with extensive organization and planning. Marches, rallies, and schedules for cross burnings had extensive plans leading up to their execution. The structure of the Klan leadership allowed for their actions to succeed.

Lee also chose to depict the BSU with extremely large turnouts at their planned events. As sad as it is to hear, that’s not the reality that Stallworth reports. In his time spent with the KKK, he crossed paths with innumerable counter protesting groups. Each one has a weak turnout and a lack of coordination and organization. Realities were switched to satisfy the viewer’s desire for the underdogs, the BSU in this case, to come out on top even though they didn’t. 

The distortion of reality doesn’t end there. Stallworth stresses that his reality in the KKK was learning their mostly nonviolent nature. When the white, in-person operative—his true name being Chuck, not Flip—first met the local KKK chapter’s leader, Ken, he expressed how Klan members were to operate while at their own rallies or while protesting an opposing organization. All Klan members were instructed to protest peacefully. They were told to not engage in violence unless primarily attacked. In Stallworth’s time spent in the KKK, no acts of violence were perpetrated.

Lee is only able to scratch the surface of Stallworth’s internal struggle with being a Black American in the 1970s while also being a cop. In a written first-person format, Black Klansman is able to better explain Stallworth’s internal struggle.

Just like the movie, Stallworth attended a speech by Stokely Carmichael, a predominant civil rights activist. He was sent undercover to the event to ensure the event did not insight violence. Carmichael’s speech focused on the popular anti-police stance that was inherent in the black power movement. In the middle of the cheering and applauding for the dismantling of the police force that had taken advantage of Black Americans, Stallworth found himself needing to cheer along to maintain his cover. 

Internally, Stallworth had two identities that seemed to disagree with one another. On one hand, he was a young Black American in the civil rights movement. He felt united with the cause of his fellow black Americans and shared their pride in being black. On the other hand, he had an incredible pride for being a cop. He had dreams of becoming an undercover agent and set the record for the fastest promotion from street cop to undercover operative. Instead of the majority of black Americans who disapproved of the police force, Stallworth was determined to change it from the inside out.

While the book highlights his internal conflict with his identity, the movie elevates the humor of the situation Stallworth finds himself in. The passive aggressive, monotone humor that Washington conveys summarizes how ridiculous it all is.

A terrorist organization, with one of the pledges on their membership cards reads that Klan members are “to never discuss any Klan affairs with any plainclothes officers on a state, local or national level,” grants membership to a plainclothes officer. Grand Wizard David Duke befriends this plainclothes officer and tells him over the phone that he can tell for a fact that he is a white man. The interplay between Stallworth and Zimmerman pretending to be the same person rising in the ranks of the KKK begs for laughter.

Whether intentional or not, Lee seems to draw a chilling comparison between the BSU and the KKK in one of his most powerful scenes. At the same time as Flip’s induction ceremony, the BSU attends a speech from a civil rights leader Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). At the culmination of both meetings, chanting begins, alternating between the BSU’s “Black power!” chant with their fist rising through the air and the KKK’s “White power!” with a similar gesture.

It feels as though Lee wants to unite the two causes through showing their parallels even though their goals are in direct contrast with one another. Both sides are united in only one thing—their passion for their own truth. In this reality, the world feels hazy, as though there is a gray line where Lee’s perspective distorts to fit the common held beliefs of Americans today while Stallworth describes a reality opposite to Lee’s.

Though Stallworth’s telling is the established “true” version of the story, both the film and the biography have similar endings: All evidence from the investigation is ordered to be destroyed so no paper trail will lead to a detective being a member of the KKK. This has been one of the main sources of criticism of both the book and the movie. Which telling is actually closest to the truth is nearly impossible to fully defend. Stallworth was able to save select pieces of evidence from the investigation, but there is nearly no way to conclude who is closer to the truth of the matter, Lee or Stallworth.

Regardless of which telling of the Stallworth story, from either Black Klansman or BlacKkKlansman, the curtain hiding the darkest parts of racist America has begun to be pulled back. Stallworth is able to call these KKK members what they really are by explaining a conversation he overheard between a father and son. As the son asks his father who this man wearing the KKK white robes is, the father tells him; “They’re all a bunch of dumb clowns.”

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