BlacKkKlansman – Spike Lee Brings It

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



3 thoughts on “BlacKkKlansman – Spike Lee Brings It

  1. Thanks Darrel Manson. You’ve made me want to see this. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly seems like it will be both entertaining and thought-provoking. Anything to turn our attention back to our still-racist culture is more than just mindless entertainment.

  2. Darrel: Your very first sentence threw me off so much that I couldn?t even get to the rest of your review. I get your point about Spike being the go-to AA filmmaker in regards to dealing with issues of race in America. But, both before and after his films dropped, I, at least, had plenty of ?go-to AA filmmaker s?. Some of them relegated themselves to action and comedy instead of drama. But when I saw their names on the posters for their films, I knew to expect quality out of their work. The mainstream may not have known all of them, but WE sure did.

    Robert Townsend
    Michael Schultz
    John Singleton
    F. Gary Gray
    The Hughes Brothers
    (the early career of) Tyler Perry
    Reginald Hudlin
    Bill Duke

    Just a sample size of my ?go-to? list.

    1. There are indeed some strong filmmakers there. My response, though would be that with a few exceptions, the audience for those films were primarily AA audiences. And it’s perfectly acceptable to make films for that audience and it deserves more quality than what might be termed blaxploitation (although that term is so nebulous as to be near meaningless). It is the crossover of Lee’s films that I think puts him in a higher category. Occasionally the directors you mention reach a broader audience and speak to us all. Spike Lee does it frequently.

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