Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman” balances precariously on the edge of laughter and discomfort – though mostly the latter. It is a far harder movie to watch than its position on several top 10 lists for its humor might have indicated. Here, Spike Lee offers a speculative view of a factual occurrence framed with today’s tumultuous and turbulent political climate. In telling the true story of Ron Stallworth, we are given a mirror and forced to look at today through a not so far off past, and I can’t say what we see in the reflection is any prettier.
“BlacKkKlansman” tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado Springs police officer who infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the assistance of a fellow white officer, Flip (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee’s version differs from what actually occurred, as movies often do, but it’s definitely a history that deserves more attention.
I must admit that I have not seen many of Spike Lee’s films. That’s an omission I have been wanting to fix since seeing his 1992 film “Malcolm X” which I found powerful enough to watch multiple times, recommend to friends, and even read the book on which it is based (Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X). I know I need to at least watch “Do the Right Thing”.
Avoiding the film’s message for just a moment, “BlacKkKlansman” is an excellent movie. Beyond my discomfort from seeing so many characters spouting outright racism, this was a funny movie when I felt allowed to laugh. John David Washington put in an excellent performance and I look forward to seeing him in more roles.
That said, there’s no reason to divorce “BlacKkKlansman” the movie from the message. The point of media is to say something and damn does this movie hurt. Growing up in the South, I am not that far removed from the attitudes of many of this film’s most racist and hateful characters. My dad tells stories of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in our hometown in Alabama. His own complicated relationship with Black America has been the subject of endless rumination for myself and many interesting conversations for the two of us. He is much less racist (assuming you sympathize with my belief that racism is a spectrum) than the relatives of close friends who publicly espouse their affiliation with white supremacy movements and the modern KKK. Regardless, even when invisible, the KKK has never been completely absent from my life.
As such, Spike Lee hits hard and often in this movie. With excellent directing, performances, and a powerful story, the narrative pulls you in at first believing it to be a self-contained “other” timeline in a far gone past of barbarism where outright and blatant racism was the norm. The humor helps the needle break the skin before an injection of phrases and lines force the realization that this is not the past but the origin of the present.
For example, David Duke has a prominent role in “BlacKkKlansman”. Played by the always harmless Topher Grace, Duke is not parodied or played up as a great villain. When his name is first introduced, its stated that he is looking to normalize the Klan’s hate by repackaging their message for a white America less accepting of outright violence. Instead of being the KKK Grand Wizard, he is their National Director. He seems harmless enough, but when Topher Grace starts shouting “America first” at a Klan meeting and we later get real life footage of David Duke pledging his support for the politics of Donald Trump, the chill of his one-day success cuts to the bone.
My absolute favorite thing about “BlacKkKlansman” was the expert depiction of many contrasting beliefs. While the film is about Black America and the Ku Klux Klan, the characters are written in a nuanced way to never show any group as a monolith.
- Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas is the leader of the Black Student Union and she hates the police because it only takes one racist cop to kill a black person.
- Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department, cares about the persecution of his people but doesn’t believe police are innately the enemy.
- Adam Driver’s Flip, who pretends to be Ron Stallworth when infiltrating the KKK face-to-face, is Jewish but doesn’t identify as such because he wasn’t raised that way. As such, though he hates the hate of the KKK, it’s difficult for him to feel as directly impacted.
- An additional subplot features a racist police officer who shot and killed a black kid but was never convicted. The other officers protect him because they are one of his, though the officer does eventually get his by those same characters.
- There’s even a difference in how members of the KKK operate. David Duke and people like him function more like politicians and businessmen and hide their hate in their seeming normalcy. Other members of the Klan still cling to violence, murder, mayhem, and tyranny through those direct means. Though they remain together on the same roof, it’s a frequent source of conflict as murdering black people outright interferes with Duke’s new vision of the modern KKK.
In depicting these contrasts, “BlacKkKlansman” succeeds where so many meaningful movies fail. Rather than portray things as black and white, good and evil, or any other simple dichotomy, we are given a fuller picture more in line with reality. It is no comfort to know that not all KKK members want to murder black people and instead just want to send them “home”, but clinging to absolutes often forces a blind spot to the myriad of in betweens. In that blindness, we miss the fact that people sometimes hold conflicting opinions or that not all police officers are racists. That’s not an argument for accepting obvious hate groups or ignorant views that cause actual harm, but instead a call to understand that reality is far more complicated.
As the film moves past its happy ending on to its true ending, the whole experience ends with a stiff punch to the gut and a call to action. Ending with Charlottesville, the last seconds of “BlacKkKlansman” should make any empathetic person tear up at the hatred and horror that still exists in our world. As they are referred to frequently in the film, the KKK as the “Invisible Empire” never went away and its philosophy of hate remains. Whether you feel Donald Trump’s presidency is a direct result of their machinations or not, his unpresidential behavior and support of hate has only rallied the worst of our society to believe now is their time. We must all stand for a unified vision of a world, not just a USA, where race, religion, and sexual orientation are no longer a cause for people to murder people. In standing, we must tear up hate at its root and cast it from the garden of our societies.