In late 1978, while the only black detective in Colorado Springs, he noticed the Ku Klux Klan had launched a recruitment drive in the personal section of his local paper.
Intrigued, he replied with a letter pledging to “further the cause of the white race”. Before long, he was in telephone contact with the leader of his local chapter. Ron asked if he could join the secret society and the Klansman said “yes”. So began one of the most unlikely police stings in history.
It sounds easy but it wasn’t exactly straightforward. Clearly, a black face would raise eyebrows at a cross burning. So he teamed up with a white detective who would play him at any face-to-face meetings.
Two obvious models for a movie adaptation spring to mind -a gritty, 70s styled procedural like Serpico or a tricksy, true-life farce like American Hustle.
Sadly, after Get Out director Jordan Peele dropped out of the project it fell into the hands of a past-his-prime Spike Lee. And it doesn’t take long to work out how Lee is going to attack the story – with a sledgehammer.
The movie kicks off with a comedy sketch from actor and Saturday Night Live Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin who plays a hapless white power extremist who keeps fluffing his lines while shooting a recruitment film. His racist language is shocking, but not especially funny, and it has no connection with the story.
It does, however, set the tone perfectly for Lee’s film. For two hours, Ron’s fascinating yarn is swamped in broad satire, boundary-pushing racist language and on-the-nose Trump bashing.
After Baldwin’s sketch and a baffling clip of Gone With The Wind, Lee finally gets down to the story.
“Alongside the clunky grand-standing, Lee seems to have lost his sense of style. ”
We begin with Ron, played by John David Washington (Denzel’s son), spotting a recruitment poster and immediately signing up for the police. After short scenes of him suffering racist abuse from a bad cop, he falls in with good cops Jimmy (Michael Buscemi) and Flip (Adam Driver).
Ron’s first undercover assignment is to infiltrate a rally for Black Power activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where he stars an unconvincing romance with activist Patrice (Laura Harrier). Lee lets us savour Ture’s speech, but he doesn’t fully explore Ron’s inner conflict.
Still, it doesn’t take Ron long to find a cause he can buy into and we see him finding the advert and persuading Flip to meet the Klan.
Lee paints the racists with broad strokes – spineless, paranoid, often drunk and almost certifiably stupid.
In case we’ve miss the point, they pointedly talk of making America great again. In case we’ve still missed the point, we get a scene where real-life Klan boss David Duke (Topher Grace) talks about running for public office. Ron and Flip find this hilarious – American voters aren’t that stupid, they tell each other.
Alongside the clunky grand-standing, Lee seems to have lost his sense of style. The flat lighting, the half-empty police station and the one-note characters give it the feel of a pre Hill Street Blues cop show.
After an messy finale, Lee switches to footage of the racist Charlottesville attack and Trump’s refusal to condemn the “alt-right”.
If you’re a racist Trump fan who admires the Klan and pays to see Spike Lee movies, this film might just change your life.
But I suspect the film would have had more of an impact if Ron’s story was allowed to speak for itself.