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Live coverage of the Republican National Convention airs from 8-10 p.m. tonight on TPR News stations.

'BlacKkKlansman' Sounds Like It's Made Up But It's A True Story


But I'm going to hand it over to NPR's Justin Richmond talking with David Greene about the new Spike Lee movie out today that's got a lot of people talking.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It is called "BlacKkKlansman." and if that title does not give it away, well, it is about a black detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. This movie won second place at the Cannes Film Festival this year with some there calling it a return to form for the director. And here to talk more about this is NPR's Justin Richmond.

Hi, Justin.


GREENE: So you saw this film?


GREENE: Tell me about it.

RICHMOND: So it's based on a true story and set in the '70s. It stars John David Washington, who's Denzel Washington's son.

GREENE: A black detective actually infiltrated the KKK. This really happened.

RICHMOND: And yes, a black detective really did in the '70s. His name was Ron Stallworth. He talks his way into the Klan - a local chapter of the Klan - over the phone. But once he has to show up for the meeting, he has his colleague, who happens to be Jewish - he's played by Adam Driver - stand in for him. And here's Driver's character talking to the black detective about why he doesn't think the case is all that important.


ADAM DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) For you, it's a crusade. For me, it's a job. It's not personal, nor should it be.

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Why haven't you bought into this?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Why should I?

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Because you're Jewish, brother, the so-called chosen people. You've been passing for a WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy.

RICHMOND: That's one of the more serious moments in the film, and there's a lot of those. But it's also a pretty funny movie, too. It's kind of like just a buddy cop with a message.

GREENE: OK. What exactly is the message we should get from this?

RICHMOND: It's a little hard to pin down, like a lot of Spike Lee's movies. It's pretty all over the place. But one thing he's definitely trying to say is that the racism Spike captured in the 20th century is still here. I mean, Spike's not holding back. He basically calls the president of the United States a white supremacist, and it comes off heavy-handed. He didn't need to keep hammering the point. It was a little obvious what he was trying to say.

But, you know, there were times where it does work and where Spike was a little more subtle. There's a scene where the grand wizard of the Klan, David Duke - he's played by Topher Grace - is toasting members of the Klan. And he ends his toast with a phrase you might recognize.


TOPHER GRACE: (As David Duke) I want to thank you so much for never putting your country second. America first.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) America first.

GRACE: America first.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) America first.

GREENE: You're saying that's one of the more subtle moments in the film?


RICHMOND: Yeah, it actually is. But I'm saying that because it actually has some history to it, that phrase. It's a phrase the KKK and David Duke actually used for decades. And that historical context kind of allows the scene to work on multiple levels. It references the present, but it also pulls from the past. And you know, what really works for me was the film's coda.

GREENE: Coda - that's something Spike Lee often does in his movies. Right? So what did he do here?

RICHMOND: Yeah. So here, he used footage from the "Unite the Right" rally that happened in Charlottesville...

GREENE: Oh, yeah, last year.

RICHMOND: ...About a year ago. Yeah. And it's really horrendous footage. It shows the car attack that happened where a white supremacist drove into the counterprotesters at high speeds. It shows that video multiple times and from multiple angles. And then it shows a picture of Heather Heyer, the white woman who was killed in that attack. It also leaves you wondering, you know, how much things really have changed. And so it's pretty effective and really is the most powerful part of the film.

GREENE: Do you see why people at Cannes were saying that this film is Spike Lee really returning to his old form?

RICHMOND: I mean, not really. I was thinking about how "Do The Right Thing" came out 29 years ago and actually also debuted at Cannes (laughter).

GREENE: It's been that long. Wow.

RICHMOND: Yeah. And that's a movie that also deals with race, obviously, in America. But I thought it was more effective because it doesn't take sides. It kind of just allows you to view what's happening on this - in this neighborhood in Brooklyn and kind of decide for yourself. That's obviously a little tough with movies like "BlacKkKlansman," where you're dealing with the Ku Klux Klan. There's not a lot of nuance there, not a lot of room for nuance. So is it a return to his more provocative films of the '80s and '90s? No. But it is really entertaining and sometimes powerful.

GREENE: NPR's Justin Richmond. Thanks, Justin.

RICHMOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.