In a world where it’s hard to get people to discuss issues about race for ten minutes, how do you get people to pay to sit down and watch racial issues play out for two hours? Writer-director Spike Lee has been trying to answer this question for 32 years. The creator of countless notable films on the plight of black Americans through the avenues of comedy, drama, mystery, crime and documentary, is back with BlacKkKlansman, a film that gets closer to the answer than ever before.
Lee pulls no punches in his first film since the election of Donald Trump and the recent rise of the Alt Right. The film opens on a propaganda film, featuring wounded Confederate soldiers as well as a raving white supremacist played by Alec Baldwin. This is the first of many scenes in the movie that call back to the 1915 white supremacy film, The Birth of a Nation, drawing parallels between that film and the modern white superiority and white separatist movements.
From there, Lee pulls the viewer into a blindingly fast, brilliantly witty, 135 minute adaptation of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer who, by pretending to be a white supremacist, infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s. Stallworth and another officer, the quiet and reluctant “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), team up in a winding crime comedy that’s half buddy-cop, half-brutal historical drama presented in a style reminiscent of 1970s blaxploitation films that Lee delivers with an expert touch. Only two years into his acting career, Washington excels in his portrayal of Stallworth a conflicted but wholesome hero, caught between the anti-establishment tone of the black power movement and his dedication to the police force. Stallworth and Zimmerman’s transformations into characters that they use to infiltrate the Klan, Stallworth handling phone calls and Zimmerman acting in the face-to-face meetings, are as endearing as believable and show a natural but reluctant chemistry between the characters.
With the release of countless movies and shows in the past few years which have a racial focus or elements of racial politics to them, what was once profound and groundbreaking has started to become just another Hollywood formula. Going into BlacKkKlansman, my main worry was that the film would regurgitate the points that Lee and other directors have been making and remaking for years. Either out of rage at the ignorance taking center stage in American politics or from a reluctance to push boundaries after finding a consistent pattern as a director, I was expecting Lee to pound obvious talking points and issues into the ground. BlacKkKlansman strips from its dialogue about race so much of the preachiness, guilt and intolerance that usually drives people away. It delves into persecution as a whole; one of the most evocative arcs in the movie is not even being race-based, but rather Zimmerman’s internal conflict over his Jewish heritage. I can only hope that anyone disenfranchised with the racial discussion will give this film a chance and see how much there really is to talk about.
Even with the atmosphere of fashions, figures and organizations tied inseparably to the 1970s; Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party, afros and early ‘70s action films, BlacKkKlansman could not be more of a commentary on present-day America. In one notable scene, Stallworth doubts David Duke’s intentions to run for public office because no one would ever vote in a president whose belief in white supremacy was so open. The ending of the movie is so openly critical of the modern political establishment that it could not have been more overt if Washington turned and winked at the camera every time a Klan member said “America First!”
While in the past, Lee has fallen into the segmented approach that many recent writer-directors have taken to when adding social commentary, where a dull, pretentious lesson is thrown in between bits of action or comedy, but BlacKkKlansman develops commentary and narrative side-by-side. The emotional suckerpunches shown through the abuse of police power against women and minorities, the delicious irony in Stallworth’s phone calls with the Grand Wizard of the KKK, Duke and every other scene adds up to a solution for Spike Lee’s question: you don’t sit people down and make them think about race. You give them an engaging story to fall into and some wonderful characters to cheer for, and they’ll do all of the thinking for themselves.
Brendan Lordan is a second-year student majoring in English writings. ✉ BL895080@wcupa.edu.