Based on the incredible and almost unbelievable true story, Spike Lee’s latest film Blackkklansman uses the past to comment on the present with smooth cinematic style and a powerful script. The film follows young rookie black cop (the first in Colorado Springs, where Blackkklansman is set) Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington who has previous portrayed Malcolm X) who, alongside Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), infiltrates the KKK during the early 1970s.
I had a pretty firm idea of what to expect going in, being a fan of Lee’s previous works, but I was not expecting the power the film would have. Blackkklansman opens with perhaps the most famous scene from Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara searches through a crowd of wounded confederate soldiers, only to transition to a racist leader (played by Alec Baldwin, whose character never appears again) practising a white supremacist transcript in front of a black-and-white newsreel of stereotypical representations of the black community, chosen to support the character’s cause. Baldwin looks directly into the camera as he spouts his hatred and although it is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Washington’s character Stallworth, having been accepted into the Colorado Springs police force after a recruitment campaign that “encouraged minorities to apply”, is confined to the dull records room where he bears the brunt of casual racist comments that his white colleagues see no problem with; the word “toad” is used numerous times when referring to black criminals. Stallworth initially ignores the comments but eventually retorts, claiming that “there are no toads here, only human beings. Give me a name and I’ll give you a file”. Now we know that Stallworth is not going to put up with racist nonsense, and it is just the beginning of Washington’s magnifying performance.
Stallworth is then assigned an undercover mission to attend a talk by ex-Black Panther and African Nationalist Kwame Ture, otherwise known as Stokley Carmichael. The police force in Colorado Springs are worried that Ture will rile up the community’s black residents into retaliation to their unjust treatment – God forbid – so Stallworth’s job is to report back the effect Ture has on his audience, which is mostly black college students. During Ture’s powerful speech his audience does indeed become enthusiastic, and rightly so, but Stallworth has to try to remain neutral; being a member of the police force in the US and a black man are almost mutually exclusion during this point in history. What makes the speech so emotional is Lee’s decision to cut between Ture and close-ups of individuals looking up at him and listening (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video comes to mind); this decision emphasises the significance of the individual black person, and the black people as a unified community. It’s an incredibly moving scene.
Pure chance leads Stallworth to discover an ad in the local paper for the Klu Kulx Klan. He telephones and poses as a white man in order to receive reading material from them. However, the rookie cop makes the mistake of telling them his real name and when his KKK contact wishes to meet him in person, it is fellow minority Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman who is chosen to be “white Ron” during the face-to-face meetings with the KKK. Even the idea of this situation is bizarre, but they manage to pull it off.
The lead-up to the film’s climax is stylish, entertaining, and at times tense. The white supremacists are in no way portrayed sympathetically, and Topher Grace’s portrayal of David Duke, KKK Grand Wizard, oozes Trump; he thrives on flattery, genuinely believes that his beliefs are natural and scientific, and there are even a few quotes alluding to “America’s greatness” to cement their similarities.
The most important scene – for myself anyway – is a juxtaposition of the KKK and the black community. The shots of the present KKK show them watching D. W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film so powerful and influential that it reignited the KKK, and actually eating popcorn and laughing at the racist and over-exaggerated portrayal of black people as rapists and murderers. In contrast, the scenes of the young black community who invited Ture to speak at the start of the film have gathered in an intimately small house to hear Jerome Turner (Harry Belefonte) deliver a personal experience of US racism. As the KKK cackle at their ancestors murdering black people, Turner speaks of the unjust murder of his mentally-disabled black friend around the same time The Birth of a Nation was released. Turner explains that the white jury unjustly convicted his friend in just four minutes, and that the crowd dragged him into the street where they kicked him, stabbed him, going as far as to cut off his genitals, before burning him to death. Belefonte’s execution, with his raspy and emotion-heavy voice, is so powerful that I cried. And what this scene demonstrates to a contemporary audience is the impact cinematic representations can have on societies; it forces us to consider how minority groups are being represented on screen today.
Although Stallworth and Flip’s story ends in a light and funny tone, mocking David Duke’s stupidity over the phone, the film ends with contemporary footage of the riots and protests in Charlottesville last year, alongside footage of both Duke and Trump condoning the violence and insinuating that the black community were the antagonists. Lee goes as far to include shots of the car that rammed into the crowd, killing protester Heather Heyer. Blackkklanmans concludes with a photo of Heather saying “Rest in Power” and showing the US flag upside down as it slowly fades into black and white.
Blackkklansman’s style will not be for everyone, and no, it is not Lee’s best film, or even the best film of the year. But its message is so undeniably important considering the current state of the Western world. I urge everyone to view it, at least once.
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Brian Tarantina, Jasper Pääkkönen and Topher Grace