After spotting some commercials and a trailer (see below), I was somewhat interested in seeing Spike Lee’s new “joint,” the true story of a black Colorado Springs police officer named Ron Stallworth that somehow managed to infiltrate the KKK, establishing a connection to David Duke back in the early 70s. TV commercials have played up the comedic aspects of the story (and there are plenty), but considering Spike Lee’s involvement, I knew there had to be a deeper message.
What really drew me in, however, was an interview that Spike did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper discussing the movie’s attempt to connect the past to the present. Cooper confessed that seeing the film shook and unsettled him. After that, I made sure to put the movie at the top of my weekend agenda.
I’m sure glad I did.
The opening sequence of BlacKkKlansman is borrowed from Gone With the Wind, and is perhaps the most famous use of the Confederate flag in cinema history.
Recalling that Spike said he wanted to connect the past to the present, when this scene popped up on the screen my immediate thought was: “Oh man, Spike has definitely got something to say.”
Based on just my Twitter feed, I’m surprised that historians have apparently not paid much attention to this film, especially when they seem to be consumed right now with analyzing what Charlottesville and the Confederate monuments debates tells us about modern race relations, politics, and Civil War memory in the Trump era, and/or debunking Dinesh D’ Souza’s Death of a Nation book and film.
I don’t want to give away any big spoilers here, because everyone needs to see this film, so I will tread lightly.
From start to finish, Spike Lee offers a primer on how movies have shaped perceptions of race in the United States. Besides Gone with the Wind, he makes heavy use of Birth of a Nation (1915), but also has characters discussing the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the “Blacksploitation” films of the early 70s.
Spike’s use of Birth of a Nation is particularly interesting (and satisfying) to watch because he uses one of D.W. Griffith’s pioneering film techniques, crosscutting, to make a powerful point about how that film distorted history. I won’t give the scene away, but you’ll know it when you see it (it’s a pleasure to see Harry Belafonte on screen again), so take pleasure in seeing Spike use Griffith’s own technique against him.
One of the film’s most engrossing scenes is a speech delivered by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) to a group of African American college students, in which he focused on how blacks had allowed American culture to define how they saw themselves.
The role is played by Corey Hawkins, and he is mesmerizingly good, delivering a wake-up call to the film’s protagonist. It feels historically and artistically authentic, and is an unforced method of kicking the film’s narrative into motion.
As if this were not enough to get the attention of historians, Spike more directly connects the present to the past by demonstrating the way that racial politics have evolved, from the disgustingly upfront and honest language of “massive resistance” in response to school integration and desegregation, to the “dogwhistle” political tactic of speaking about traditional America values, law and order, taking back our country, and “America first.”
Spike makes clear that the latter is the more dangerous form of racial politics. In one particularly well-written scene, a character explains to the film’s protagonist Ron Stallworth (exceptionally played by John David Washington) that someday someone might get elected president using such tactics. When Stallworth then expresses disbelief that someone like David Duke could ever get elected president, he is told that he should not be so naive.
Duke is played in the film by Topher Grace (don’t be surprised if he gets a best supporting actor nomination), and he is a strong contrast to the other Klansman in the film.
The rest are the dimwitted, redneckish, gun-obsessed buffoons that most people associate with the Klan. Duke, however, is a smooth talking, well -read, and deep thinking charmer who understands that “dogwhistle” techniques are more politically powerful than terrorism. As Topher Grace discovered when researching the role, and as Spike powerfully demonstrates, Duke predates Trump’s use of “America First” and making America “Great Again.”
The film also features another fine performance by Adam Driver as Stallworth’s partner. He’s quickly becoming one of our best and most intense actors, and his character’s evolution is also at the core of the film’s point about identity.
Driver plays a Jewish detective that never really gave much thought to being a Jew (“I was just another white kid”), until he must reckon with the Klan’s anti-Semitism. Suddenly, the white privilege he’s enjoyed most of his life seems fake. He too is the member of a marginalized minority, and he’s just been “passing.”
All this is wrapped up in a well-paced action/comedy/buddy film. I don’t know Stallworth’s story well enough to comment on how much of it is true and how much of it is just based on truth, but from what I have read, the specifics of what the investigation accomplished is accurately told, uncovering Klansmen in the military and NORAD, and thwarting cross burnings and violence. (Although you’ll be able to tell that the film’s climactic moments and timing are most likely pure Hollywood formula).
The acting is uniformly fine, the dialogue believable, and Spike’s recreation of the 1970s is evocative. (One extended dance sequence makes great use of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose classic soul hit “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now,” oozing with the pride of the blossoming Black Power and “Black is Beautiful” movements.)
Ultimately, BlacKkKlansman does an excellent jump of connecting the Confederacy to current events, and demonstrating the line from David Duke to Donald Trump. By now you’re probably aware of the TV news footage that Spike uses at the end of the film to not-so-subtely tie his story to the present (if not, I won’t ruin it), and it is a powerful jolt.
Rather numbing, actually.
And yet for me, the most powerful jolt coming out of the theater was in placing the film in context of even more up-to-the-minute events.
Just last week, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham made comments about immigration policy that David Duke publicly praised. The big news today as I write this is that tapes exist of our president using racial slurs, and even the White House Press Secretary can’t guarantee that it is not true. Oh, and H.U.D. has eliminated the strongest effort in decades to combat housing segregation.
And in my local cineplex, BlacKkKlansman is now playing on the opposite end of the hallway from D’Souza’s Death of a Nation.
It doesn’t get more stark, or timely, than that.