Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Spike Lee pulls a very clever, very revealing trick on his viewers (the white ones at least) with BlacKkKlansman, his most celebrated and publicly discussed film in years. Taking the real life story of how the black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), much of the film is played as a buddy cop action-comedy. We are invited to laugh at the white supremacists in their ignorance and absurdity, the fashions and trends of the 1970s in their datedness and the basic concept in its irony and unlikeliness. The movie leads us along the typical plot beats you would expect it to follow and there’s never any reason to doubt that Ron and Flip will learn to work together, triumph over the racist sons-of-bitches and put them away for good, and then end the movie on a satisfying note as they are congratulated and rewarded for their victory and live happily ever after in the brighter, more tolerant future that is sure to come.
And yet, while Lee is never subtle in his effort to draw parallels between the events of this film and the present (the obviousness of which is part of the point) and does depict some deeply and profoundly serious moments, that still doesn’t prepare you for the tragic punchline as the film jumps years ahead to the footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It’s at that moment, as you behold former Grand Wizard of the Klan David Duke (a major character in this film) delivering the exact same racist rhetoric as his 1970s counterpart, the car crash that killed Heather Heyer, and then President Trump’s refusal to condemn the actions of the white supremacists, that the real point of the movie hits you like a ton of bricks. The aim isn’t to point out that racism still exists or that it’s bad; that’s a given when you’re watching a Spike Lee film. The point is that the hateful ideology of the KKK is still around today and is still as pervasive as it ever was precisely because so little has been done to challenge it. The film disparagingly condemns those, specifically white liberals, who so complacently dismissed the white cloaks and cross burnings as relics of the past that they never saw the rise of the alt-right for what it was even as it was happening before their very eyes. As a white liberal myself, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed for having been so contentedly thrilled and amused just minutes before.
I think that’s the reaction Lee was going for because BlacKkKlansman is indeed a funny and thrilling film. Based on, as the opening title puts it, “some fo’ real shit”, the movie follows Ron Stallworth as he instigates a plan to sneak a Trojan Horse into the ranks of the KKK. He does this by answering one of their newspaper ads on the phone and putting on his best generic white guy voice so that he might pose as a budding supremacist looking to join the Klan. He arranges a face-to-face meeting with president of the local chapter and recruits Flip to be his white avatar. Thus Flip meets with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the surprisingly affable head of the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK, and worms his way into his inner circle with the pathologically hostile Felix (Jasper Pääkönen) and the dim-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) while Ron continues to handle their interactions over the phone. The meetings are often comical to an almost absurdist degree as the movie portrays these racist, misogynistic, xenophobic militants as the bunch of buffoons that they are (Felix at one point demands that Flip drop his trousers to prove that he isn’t Jewish). And yet, anytime we start to get the impression that these guys are harmless in their incompetence and idiocy, the film is quick to remind us that these buffoons have guns and bombs and pose a real danger to innocent people that needs to be thwarted.
The balance BlacKkKlansman walks between comedy and drama, fact and fiction (while the story itself is true, much of it is fictionalised), and past and present is fitting for a film that is so largely focused on dualities. Our main character Ron is one who finds himself split between two worlds; one as a cop who is loyal to the institution and system that he serves and one as a black man whose community views the police as part of the problem in a system that has continuously let them down. His first undercover assignment is to attend a lecture delivered by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) who preaches vigorously about the need for black people to find pride, beauty and love in who they are. This is one of the most powerful sequences in the whole film as close-up images of black faces in the audience are conjured up in soft fades with warm lighting to give us a visual representation of beauty for black people. It is also here that Ron meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist who is utterly devoted to the cause and who thinks all cops are pigs. Ron falls for her (keeping his occupation a secret of course) and is moved by her passion for pride and justice to become more assertive in his racial identity. Ron’s duality raises the question of whether it’s possible for him to remain loyal to an unjust system while trying to effect positive change to an enduring status quo from within and still stay true to the cause of social justice, cultural solidarity and Black Power. Ron’s crusade against the KKK is his attempt to reconcile that duality.
This duality doesn’t just apply to Ron or even to black people. BlacKkKlansman devotes a not insignificant amount of time towards exploring the duality of Flip, a white man of Jewish heritage but who has never thought of himself as Jewish, suddenly being forced to come to terms with his ethnicity. His vaguely Jewish appearance inspires Felix to try and bait him with anti-Semitic remarks, such as denying that the Holocaust ever happened, and it isn’t long before Flip realises that being subjected to such attacks is taking a toll on him. He starts to confront the idea that, as a Jewish-American who has been passing for ‘white’ all his life, he has as much at stake in this campaign as Ron does. Lee does a remarkable job of using the characters of Ron and Flip as symbols of the African-American and Jewish-American experiences and exploring them in parallel with one another in order to clarify both. The comparison is given even greater weight in Kwame’s speech where he likens black children watching the Tarzan movies and being taught to see the white protagonist living in Africa as the ideal of athleticism, heroism and beauty to Jewish children in Germany being shown propaganda films that taught them to root for the Nazis.
The comparison that Kwame makes is an example of the film’s fascination with cinema and its unique capacity to convey and spread ideas. The very first shot in the whole film belongs not to Lee or his crew; it belongs to Gone with the Wind, one of the greatest and most popular films ever made. The shot shows hundreds of wounded Southern soldiers spread around the grounds of a railway station while the camera is carried back to reveal the heroic image of the Confederate flag wavering on over them. It is an image that exemplifies everything that Gone with the Wind is and is about; it is a grand and iconic scene in cinema, almost peerless in its scale and magnificence, and it expresses this nostalgia for a mythologised Antebellum South, a time that the film portrays as a romantic summer of innocence where master and slave lived in harmony. Lee includes this image as an example of cinema’s power to shape attitudes and to keep alive such ideas as this sentimental tribute to an era of white supremacy. This lesson is given greater poignancy in the film’s greatest sequence where it contrasts a KKK screening of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, racist epic The Birth of a Nation with an elderly gentleman played by Harry Belafonte recounting an incident in 1916 where he witnessed the lynching of Jesse Washington (a true story) and detailing the role that the film from the preceding year played in rousing racist hatred and revitalising the Ku Klux Klan.
But Lee is also a strong believer in cinema’s power as an instrument for positive change. He wouldn’t be a filmmaker if he didn’t. He imbues such passion and raw intensity into BlacKkKlansman that it shouldn’t be a surprise that he ended up making one of the landmark films of 2018. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Chayse Irvin (who shot Beyoncé’s Lemonade), the film constructs a splendid recreation of 1970s USA and evokes much of the cinema from that era, matching the tone and energy of such cop movies as The French Connection. The costumes, complete with vibrant colours and elaborate afros, the note-perfect production design and the musical score with its groovy guitar riffs and funky drum beats recall such Blaxploitation movies as Shaft and Super Fly, which are discussed at length by Ron and Patrice in one scene. The editing makes incredibly skilful use of juxtaposition in both the Birth of a Nation and Charlottesville sequences to convey a heartbreaking tragedy and cutting furiousness that moves the viewer into a state of breathless amazement and tearful fury. The film is so impassioned, so provocative and so masterfully crafted that it demands to be watched and be included in the public conversation. BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most momentous film in years and he proves himself a superstar still at the top of his game.