BlacKkKlansman is an act of cinematic rage. Spike Lee’s latest film is a wild, somewhat sprawling nuanced look at how a black detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the KKK. The humor is sly, and Lee’s targets range from politics to the history of film itself.
For a generation of movie buffs who have decried that politics and entertainment should never meet, Lee must resemble something akin to hemlock. Lee makes every film he makes feel as if it might be his last one. His movies feel alive and unpredictable. A breadth of ideas and themes Lee is less interested in you liking him and more interested in prodding a reaction or a thought out of you.
BlacKkKlansman opens up with a famous tracking shot of Gone With The Wind. Scarlett wanders the train yard of wounded soldiers as the camera pulls back to reveal the mass of wounded bodies and corpses. The camera hovers over the train yard, a Confederate flag waving proudly in the left-hand corner.
It’s impossible to watch BlacKkKlansman and not think about current events. An intentional act by Lee as he is trying to show us both the circular nature of our tendencies as well as the creeping evolution of a new kind of fascism. A more gentle but no less poisonous and bigoted form that smiles at you warmly in a sort of “Aww shucks” manner.
Hollywood has long shown us racists, but they have been racists caricatures. These characters have been barely people. Instead, they have been tropes with a name and a face. These films have looked at racism less like something that is institutionalized and more a trait that reveals the character’s true villainy. Lee blows up this trope and shows us in more ways than one what “good ‘ol boys” look like. Which is to say like someone you might meet walking down the street.
We are shown an instructional PSA with Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). He gives a bigoted rant against desegregation and civil rights. Beauregard stands in front a series of pictures from that era. His vile thoughts and words are punctured as Lee cleverly shows us an unpolished ill-prepared man. Beauregard stumbles and pauses to do vocal warm-ups, calls for his lines, and stops from time to time to complain about the structure of a sentence.
It’s the normalization of racism that tumbles through BlacKkKlansman. Everyone is the hero in their own story, as a popular writing maxim goes. Lee endeavors to show us how terrifyingly accurate the maxim is in reality. After all, David Duke (Topher Grace) isn’t the Grand Wizard of the Klan. He prefers to be called the National Director or Organizer.
Lee is often accused of being less than subtle. He has always had the rare ability to make his films highly artificial and yet somehow deeply emotionally resonant. It’s as if his heightened artificiality allows him to get at the emotional core of his characters.
But he is subtle. Notice the scene where the Klan watches D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth Of A Nation. Lee and his cameraman, Chayse Irvin uses the same techniques so often cited as the reason to watch the film. They indulge in close-ups, pans, even the way Barry Alexander Brown edits the montage, is reminiscent of the infamous movie. Lee portrays the white Klansman the way blacks are portrayed in the film.
Brown and Lee cut between the Klan’s watching Birth Of A Nation and a meeting with black student activists. Ron’s girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) is leading a talk. The klan hoots and howl at a bygone piece of propaganda and decry black people’s humanity. While Patrice and her fellow students sit around an old man Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) as he gives witness of being black in early America.
Turner is surrounded by images, of lynchings, and beaten black bodies. Lee is showing us the power of images. Showing us the kind of images White America has time and time again shown they prefer. Early on in BlacKkKlansman Ron attends a Black Power meeting. The guest speaker Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) tells the all-black audience about black beauty and black agency. Lee and Irvin superimpose the faces of the black audiences members, so they grow large as they are told, black is beautiful.
Ron’s partner, and white double, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) doesn’t understand Ron’s desire to bring these men down. A Jewish detective who “passes” he is slowly radicalized to Ron’s cause. His radicalization comes both from the men he is forced to befriend and the connection with his own Jewish heritage. Early on in the film, Ron asks Flip if he’s Jewish. “I don’t know. Am I?” Little by little Flip begins to see and understand Ron’s urgency in monitoring the local Klan.
Patrice forces Ron to come to terms with the duality of his existence as a black man and as a cop. The black community and law enforcement have a long and troubled history. Lee does not shy away from the complexities of this long and torturous relationship. Ron forces Flip to come to terms with his own roots and his role in the fight. All of them drag the Colorado Springs Police Department into an era of equality kicking and screaming.
Blackkklansman is not a hopeful movie. But the script by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott surprises us with a wry and dark wit. Flip rides along with one of the Klansmen Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) he is told, “We don’t call ourselves the Klan. We’re The Organization. Or The Invisible Empire.” Ron contacted them by calling a number he saw in the paper in the ad section. “To contact the Klan call…”
As Blackkklansman barrels toward its conclusion, it lands one final and gut-wrenching blow. Lee ends with footage from Charlottesville. As you may recall, white supremacists descended upon the city in a “Unite The Right” rally. Brown and Lee edit the news footage to bring home Lee’s point. Racism is not over, and neither is the Klan.
They may talk politely as they smile and walk around without robes and hoods but the hate burns brighter than ever. I must warn you that Lee also includes footage of the young woman who was run down by a car and killed. Her name was Heather Heyer. The final shot is of Heather, her birthday and day of death. It dissolves to an upside down American flag which turns black.
BlacKkKlansman is a bit like Sorry To Bother You. Lee’s offering is more polished but also more focused. His rage becomes infectious as the images of Charlottesville dance across the screen. Yes, it’s based on a true story, but Lee is saying something more than that. He’s saying it’s still happening. What are we going to do about it?