The film starts with a small video of a battlefield with the bodies of Confederate soldiers lying everywhere as some try to help those wounded while others mourn over the dead. It then cuts to another video from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin), who launches into a racist tirade of how African Americans are taking over the country and causing trouble for white Protestant Americans.
1979, Colorado Springs - Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) arrives at the local police station. He is interviewed by Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and Mr. Turrerntine (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) over whether or not he would be qualified on the force. Given the current social and political climate regarding African Americans, they want to know how Ron would react if a white officer were to harass him, and Ron says he would turn the other cheek if he needs to. Ron is then made the first black offier on the force.
Ron's first job is to work in the filing department. He is antagonized by a Patrolman named Andy Landers (Frederick Weller). Ron then goes to Bridges and requests that he be put on an assignment to get out in the field, but Bridges declines his request. However, Bridges later changes his mind and decides to send Ron to a Black Panther meeting to see if they are planning to radicalize themselves. A known activist, Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), is said to be speaking there. Bridges has Detectives Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi) sit in as Ron goes in with a wire.
Ron attends the meeting and meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), head of the Black Student Union. He tries to convince her that he is down with their cause. They enter for the meeting, where Carmichael, now going as Kwame Ture, starts to speak. He gives an impassioned speech of how everyone there must learn to love their black culture and to not be ashamed or try to conform for white folks. Kwame then starts to speak about an impending race war between black people and white officers who are constantly killing them in the streets, and that the black community must arm themselves in the face of a threat. Ron becomes invested in Kwame's words, but also weary about his beliefs in a race war.
Later, Ron meets Patrice at a club. She tells him that they were pulled over by officers while taking Kwame back to the airport. We see the incident, and Landers was the one who pulled them over and started harassing Patrice while two other officers were holding them at gunpoint. They discuss their feelings on the matter, and how the relationship between black folks and the police are, before they head out on the dance floor.
After bringing his information back to Bridges, Ron feels that they need not look further into the Black Panthers despite Bridges hearing about Kwame talking about the race war. Ron goes to the intelligence office to answer phones and sits to read a paper. He finds an ad for the Ku Klux Klan, and he becomes compelled to call. Ron poses as a white man as he speaks to a Klan chapter president named Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and Ron manages to convince Walter that is is, in fact, a racist white Aryan man. They arrange for a meeting to be set up, although Ron realizes he screwed up by using his real name. Ron brings this to Bridges and requests to use one of the white officers to play the Ron Stallworth that Walter thinks he spoke to. They decide to use Flip, and they use a script to differentiate between speaking "white English" and "jive". Flip is also given a wire to use for his face-to-face meetings with the Klan.
Flip meets another Klan member named Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakonen) while Ron and Jimmy are attempting to keep a close watch on them. Felix drives Flip to one of the Klan's meeting spots, but he reminds Flip to refer to them as "The Organization". Felix spots Ron driving close behind him, and he has Flip load a gun just in case. They drive off and Ron gets off his tail when he realizes he was noticed. Felix then brings Flip to a pool hall where he meets Walter and a constantly drunk Klansman named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Felix keeps suspecting that Flip might be Jewish (he is), but Flips convinces Walter that he is just as racist as the rest of them.
In between the investigation, Ron continues to see Patrice, having to hide the fact that he is a cop since she hates them and always refers to them as "pigs". She and her fellow BSU members are also disturbed by the appearance of Klan flyers all around the neighborhood. Ron has the police intervene on Klan activity, like cross-burnings.
Ron speaks to Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito), as they are trying to gather information on the Grand Wizard of the Klan, David Duke (Topher Grace), who is running for office, and they want to prevent him from going any higher since they don't want someone like Duke in office. Ron believes that people would never vote for someone like him, but Trapp tells him to wake up.
Ron listens in on another meeting as Flip goes to Felix's house to meet other Klansmen and Felix's wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). They are planning something against Patrice and her group, since they know she has been so vocal about her stance on racism and police brutality. Felix, still not trusting Flip, brings him into his basement for a "Jew lie detector test". Sensing trouble, Ron runs up to the house and throws a rock through a window to scare Connie, and then run like hell before the men run out with guns. Flip shoots at the car but intentionally misses to prove to the others he's on their side.
Felix looks up Ron Stallworth in the phone book and goes to Ron's apartment to find him there with Patrice. Felix later asks Flip about this during another meeting, but Flip says his number is unlisted and that he lives on a different street.
Ron then manages to get in touch with Duke himself. Like the others that spoke to Ron on the phone, he is also convinced that Ron is a "true white American". Ron, however, has to hide his disgust with Duke's rhetoric and racist talk against black folks. At the same time, Flip is made the head of the Klan's chapter since he's gained trust among the others, but he tries to tell them that he can't perform his duties with them consistently because of his ill father. He slips up when mentioning this because Ron had said his sick dad was in El Paso, and Flip said Dallas, which the others catch onto until Flip corrects himself.
Felix, Connie, and Ivanhoe meet with another Klansman named Walker (Nicholas Turturro) who brings them C4 that they plan to use against the BSU, although Patrice is their main target.
Bridges assigns Ron to protect Duke as he is arriving in town. Landers makes more snide remarks toward Ron, leading him to snap and almost attack him. Bridges tells him that if he let Landers get to him so easily, he won't stand a chance with Duke.
Ron goes to find Patrice to warn her not to go to a planned march with the BSU, because that's where the Klan is planning to attack them. He has to reveal to Patrice that he is a cop, and she becomes so upset that she refuses to see him, even as he tries to tell her that while he is down for the liberation of their people, he is loyal to his duties as an officer.
Ron then goes to meet Duke, having to hide his phone voice. Duke shows clear disdain for who his bodyguard is, but retains his professional demeanor. The other Klansmen, however, are less subtle, as Felix and Ivanhoe surround Ron in an attempt to intimidate him. Ron approaches Duke to ask for a polaroid together with him and another Klansman. He asks Flip to take the picture, and just as the camera flashes, Ron puts his arms around both Duke and the other man to anger them. Although Duke tries to come off as threatening, Ron reminds him he is a police officer and can arrest him for laying a finger on him.
Duke then rounds up the Klansmen for a meeting to have Flip have his official initiation. Meanwhile, the BSU is listening to a man named Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) as he recalls a mentally handicapped friend from his youth named Jesse, who was found guilty by an all white jury for the alleged rape and murder of a white woman, and they only deliberated for four minutes. Jesse was chained and paraded through the streets where he was stabbed and attacked, and later castrated. This cuts between Duke spreading his message of hate and white power, while the BSU goes for justice and black power.
After Flip's initiation, the Klan gathers for lunch. Walker tells Felix that he recognizes Flip as the cop who busted him years ago, and he knows that Flip is Jewish. Furthermore, Walker points out to Felix that it's Ron who's been speaking to them on the phone. The two of them then try to get Flip to reveal himself, but he doesn't budge. Ron then follows Connie, as he knows she is up to something suspicious. Felix leaves moments later with Walker and Ivanhoe, and Flip follows them.
Connie arrives at Patrice's home to place the C4 in her mailbox, but it won't fit. She has to run when Patrice and her friend arrive. After they go into their house, Connie sticks the bomb under Patrice's car, and Ron spots her. He chases her after saying he's a cop, and he tackles her to the ground. Two other officers show up and naturally get the wrong idea, made worse by Connie shouting that Ron was trying to rape her. The officers start to assault Ron right before Flip pulls up and tells the officers to back off after proving Ron is an undercover cop. Felix then drives up right next to Patrice's car, thinking the bomb is in the mailbox. Patrice and her friend step outside after seeing Ron on the ground, just as he tries to warn them as Felix takes out the detonator. The C4 goes off, killing Felix, Ivanhoe, and Walker. Connie wails as she sees this, and she is arrested.
Ron later has dinner with Patrice in a place where Landers comes in to mess with them. She brings up the harassment incident, which Landers proudly admits to, as well as spewing threats against them. Turns out Ron was wearing a wire for Flip, Jimmy, and Bridges to hear, and Landers is quickly arrested.
Not long after, Ron has one last phone call with Duke, where he reveals himself as the black man that he met, and he proceeds to tell Duke off for being a racist jackass, leaving him completely bewildered.
The department thinks of Ron as a hero for his success in the operation. Bridges then brings Ron, Flip, Jimmy, and Trapp into his office. He orders Ron to destroy evidence of the investigation since he doesn't want the public to know about the whole thing. The guys are outraged, but Ron proceed to tear up the file. The phone then starts ringing, and, thinking it might be the Klan, Ron doesn't answer. He starts to leave the building, but then he goes back inside to answer.
Ron is in his apartment with Patrice. She breaks it off with him because she doesn't want to be with a cop. Moments later, they hear a pounding outside. They get their guns and walk out. They see out the window, not far from them, the Klan is burning a cross.
We then cut to actual footage of the 2017 Charlotesville riots with neo-nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets, as well as clips of Black Lives Matter activists chanting against them. There is footage of the nazis clashing with the police, as well as videos of Donald Trump's reaction to the incident, referring to the nazis as "very fine people". Another clip shows the real David Duke with other white nationalists who feel empowered by Trump's words during the election. Additionally, there is horrifying footage of a nazi running his car through a crowd of people, with the surviving victims expressing their horror at the situation. Finally, there is a dedication the Heather Heyer, the woman killed when the car struck her.
The last shot is a silent image of an upside down American flag.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Based on a true story, Ron Stallworth becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His first major assignment is to sit in on a Black Panther meeting to see if they are planning to radicalize. There, he meets Patrice Dumas, head of the Black Student Union, and they later form a relationship. Ron listens to the words of speaker Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, who wants to empower fellow black Americans, but also warning of an impending race war.
Ron sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan and makes a phone call pretending to be a racist white man. He manages to set up a meeting with the chapter's president, and with permission from the chief, he gets fellow detective Flip Zimmerman to pose as Ron when meeting face-to-face with the Klan. Flip gains trust from most of the Klansmen, but one of them, Felix Kendrickson, remains suspicious of Flip and believes he's Jewish (he is).
The Klan's Grand Wizard, David Duke, arrives in town for a meeting, and Ron is assigned to protect him, despite knowing what would happen if he were to be around the Klan. Flip is officially initiated as a Klansman, while Felix and two of his cohorts, plus his wife, are planning to attack the BSU with a C4 bomb. After one of the Klansmen recognizes Flip as the cop who busted him, Felix tries to expose Flip in front of Duke, but it doesn't work. Ron follows Felix's wife Connie as she plans to kill Patrice with the bomb after placing it under her car. Ron tries to arrest Connie, but two white officers think he is attacking her, and they assault him until Flip shows up and tells them he and Ron are both cops. Felix pulls up with his buddies to detonate the bomb, not realizing they are sitting right next to the car with the bomb, and he blows himself and his friends up while Connie is arrested.
Ron later reveals himself on the phone to Duke after previously convincing him he was white. Despite Ron's operation being successful, the chief orders him to destroy evidence of the investigation so the public won't find out about it. Ron reluctantly does so. Patrice later breaks it off with him after he admits to her that he is a cop. They then see a cross being burned not far from Ron's apartment.
The film ends with real footage of neo-nazis/white supremacists/Klansmen during the 2017 Charlottesville riots, as well as clips of Donald Trump and David Duke spreading their continued support of the Klan, and a video of the nazi that ran into a group of protesters and killed Heather Heyer, showing that groups like the Klan are still very much in power to this day.
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