Until fairly recently, Spike Lee was the only go-to African-American filmmaker. Over the last few decades he has given us important looks at racism and the African-American experience, in both narrative and documentary forms. His newest film, BlacKkKlansman, continues to do so with entertainment, but also speaking loudly about the struggles our society continues to deal with. Even though the film in set in the 1970s, it sounds and looks like today.
Based on a true story (or as a title card at the beginning tells us, “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), the film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In his first undercover assignment he infiltrates a crowd at a speech given by Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), where he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the local Black Students Union. They are attracted to each other and begin a relationship.
While working in the intelligence department, Ron notes an ad in a paper seeking to recruit for the Ku Klux Klan. He calls the number and speaks to a local organizer, telling him how much he hates Black people. (Note: Various derogatory terms are used throughout the film to speak of African-Americans and Jews. You know what they are. I don’t have to use them.) When the organizer wants to meet with Ron, he must recruit one of his fellow detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to take on that aspect of the investigation. Between them, Ron and Flip are soon deeply involved with the local “Organization” and Ron is frequently talking by phone with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Dragon and Executive Director of the KKK. As the film goes on, they discover a possible violent plot and must try to prevent it.
The film’s set up is by its very nature humorous, but this is not exactly a comedy. The satirical aspects may give us some chuckles, but the reality of the situation (including the current reality surrounding White Supremacy) keeps this firmly grounded in the realm of drama and social commentary.
Parallels play an interesting role in the story telling; especially the parallels between the Black Power and the White Power movements. Both groups, for example, see a racial conflict as imminent. Both refer to police as “pigs” (an issue in Ron and Patrice’s relationship). Ron finds himself with a foot in each group and trying to maintain his role as someone who is trying to make the world better.
But Lee does not make this a film about how whites don’t get it. Certainly the people we meet in the Klan are evil. But even within this group there are variations ranging from Ivanhoe, a drunken, mindless follower, to David Duke, an intelligent, well-spoken proponent of White Supremacy who is seeking to make the Klan more marketable.
The police are for the most part supportive of Ron’s investigation. They, like Ron, are looking to make the world a better place. There is one exception, a racist cop (Fredrick Weller), who relishes using his power over Black people—including Ron. But the chain of command and Ron’s colleagues in the investigation are upright folk, not stereotypes of abusive power.
The film would be entertaining if all it did was reflect back on that time and see the battle against racism at that time. But the parallels with our own time are so strong that we can’t ignore them. It should be noted that David Duke was calling for “America first” and “Make America great again” decades before Donald Trump campaigned on those slogans. That language permeates the film. There are also references to police shootings of African-Americans with no consequences. All of this reminds us that the struggle over race in this country has really not come very far over the years. Lee makes that point even more strongly by including at the end of the film clips of news coverage of Charlottesville, complete with comments by President Trump and the real David Duke. The final image of the film makes it clear that this is a call to action—to continue the resistance to racial hatred as Ron Stallworth sought to do so long ago.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features