Spike Lee’s ability to bring issues of race to the forefront of American society has long solidified his position as a filmmaker who makes undeniably important films. In his masterpiece, Do The Right Thing (1989), he forces us to question and interrogate our own racial biases, while in Malcolm X (1992) he pays homage to the civil rights activist and leader of Black liberation. Lee stands out as an unabashed and fearless filmmaker, and in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman (2018), he takes aim at one of America’s oldest and well-known hate groups, the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee chooses to set his film in the 1970’s; an era which saw an America embroiled in racial tensions, and caught in ideological battle. As the Civil Rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s drew to a close, a rebranded KKK emboldened the white nationalist movement, thanks in large part to the Klan’s new grand wizard, former neo-Nazi David Duke. With Duke at the helm, the Klan worked to repair its public image, and legitimize their racist ideologies.
In BlacKkKlansman, Lee chronicles the unbelievably true story of Ron Stallworth, a Black police officer who successfully infiltrates and exposes the Klan.
The film begins with a pre-credits scene which depicts a pro-segregationist narrator (played by Alec Baldwin and hilariously named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard) launch a racist and anti-Semetic diatribe, as images of D.W Griffith’s, The Birth Of A Nation (1915) appear on screen. The film’s screening is purposeful, as Lee wishes to quickly remind us of America’s historically racist roots. While The Birth Of A Nation is widely hailed as Cinema’s first masterpiece thanks to Griffith’s development of cinematic techniques still used to this day, it is also a profoundly racist film credited with galvanizing the Klan’s base, and leading to its revival in the 1920’s.
After the opening credits roll, we are introduced to Stallworth (played by John David Washington), who is hired as the first Black Police Officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is dubbed the “Jackie Robinson” of police officers. Stallworth quickly convinces his superiors to work undercover, and accepts his first assignment to attend a Black student group rally, and gather intelligence. Following the rally, Stallworth is assigned to the department’s intelligence division and works to infiltrate a local KKK chapter, as he calls them and poses as a racist White man. He continues to earn the trust of the president of the local chapter, and convinces his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) to impersonate him at in-person KKK events. They successfully infiltrate the Klan’s local chapter, and eventually are able to thwart a bomb attempt on a civil rights rally, which results in the accidental death of several KKK members. The film appears to end on a light note, as Stallworth hilariously reveals his true identity as a Black man to David Duke over the phone, having previously built up rapport with the Klan’s leader portraying a White man. However, Lee chooses to end BlacKkKlansman without humour, as the film ends as a group of Klan members stand outside Stallworth’s house, as they burn a cross.
Lee tactfully filters the racist vitriol that runs rampant in the film through a filter of humour and absurdity, a sharp contrast to the paralysing and suffocating sequences featured in Detroit (2017). (https://my-take.blog/2020/06/14/detroit/). For a film which looks to delegitimize America’s most well-known White supremacist hate group, BlackKklansman is surprisingly fun at times.
Terrence Blanchard (A frequent collaborator of Lee) produces a unique score filled with strings and electric guitar riffs. It is exceptionally unique, as Blanchard produces solemn pieces which conjure up an image of a romanticized civil-war era America, while reserving the more rhythmic and jazzy melodies as a leitmotif that coincides with the bravado of Stallworth’s character.
The performances from Washington and Driver are a delicate balance of humour and absurdity. Washington amusingly convinces Klan members that he is indeed a racist White man, while Zimmerman (who is Jewish), is forced to spout anti-Semitic remarks to Klan members in order to convince them of his non-Jewish heritage. Despite being caught up in incredibly tense and life-threatening situations, the two manage to stay almost entirely unfazed throughout the film.
For all its levity, BlackKklansman does offer a formidable warning:
In one of the film’s final sequences, Lee recalls Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation one more time, as he cross-cuts a KKK screening of the film as an older man (played by Harry Belafonte) recalls the gruesome lynching of Jesse Washington, a Black teenager convicted of murder and rape who was burned alive after being brutally beaten, stabbed, castrated, and dismembered by the citizens of Waco, Texas.
Lee’s chooses to parallel this gruesome historical event with another screening of The Birth of A Nation (partly as a nod to the cross-cutting technique developed by Griffith), but mainly to remind us of the film’s lasting influence and ability to reawaken the white nationalist ideologies that continue to pervade American culture.
He forces us to contemplate whether we are really that far removed from these ideologies,
Following the film’s final sequence of the cross burning outside Stallworth’s house, Lee screens harrowing footage from the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. As images of the infamous car attack which resulted in the death of one young woman, Lee intercuts the attack with a video of President Donald Trump infamously declaring, “there were some very fine people on both sides” while David Duke is then featured speaking at the rally, as he praises Trump, exclaiming that “This is the first step in taking America back!”
As both Duke and Trump spoke, I was immediately reminded of a conversation between Stallworth and his Sargent from earlier in the film:
Stallworth: C’mon, America would never elect somebody like David Duke, President of the United States of America…
Sargent Trapp: Coming from a Black Man, that’s pretty naive.