Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' Is Audacious, Offensive, Essential Moviemaking
What's past is prologue.
Director Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is the single most compelling piece of political filmmaking made since the United States elected Donald Trump president. Trump, who weaponized lying and racism to win, is indicative of a larger problem that's always existed. Trump was just shameless enough to give it a voice. Lee doesn't want us to forget that fact, and more, he wants us to know the issue is bigger than Trump, and much more ingrained in our nation's bedrock.
A scene in BlacKkKlansman acts as a microcosm of Lee's overall message and a startling slap in the face for the audience. The film, based on a true story and set in 1979, stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado detective who infiltrates a local KKK chapter in order to take it down. David Duke (Topher Grace) is the organization's "national director" and he's fooled when Stallworth calls him using a "white" voice. That's how Stallworth gets in, although the department uses a lighter-skinned cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), for face to face meetings.
Behind the scenes of the operation, however, Stallworth expresses his doubts about the KKK's influence. "America would never elect somebody like David Duke president." These words ring like a bell in 2018. We said the same thing in 2016. Most of us, anyway.
Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito) is the one who posits Duke is trying to make a run at legitimacy, suggesting that kind of desire is more dangerous than anything. Five years ago we would've laughed right along with Stallworth. White supremacists using hot button issues to proliferate legitimate support? With a larger eye on the White House and our Constitution? Sure, buddy. Racism might still be around, but in the White House? No chance.
Well, not so much. Trump is now, almost 40 years after the events of the film, the President of the United States. He's proof of how racist this country still is. How few thinkers there still are. BlacKkKlansman screams it in our faces.
Lee, for one, knew it all along. His films have always divided racial lines and he's unafraid to imagine the perspectives of black people, as well as whites. White folks are usually depicted as defensive (Do the Right Thing) or resentful (25th Hour), and those emotions come across in Driver's portrayal of Zimmerman as well. He claims to have no horse in the race, despite being Jewish. He's just doing his job, he says. Yes, you can take it as an indictment of white complacency — a shoulder shrug at a problem that's probably there, but not big enough to really worry about. Maybe if whites had been more worried about racism back then, we wouldn't be where we are now.
Meanwhile, BlacKkKlansman is a savvy, funny, disturbing movie that works on plenty of other levels besides politics. Washington (Denzel's son) shows a much different, more nuanced side than his silly wide receiver character on HBO's Ballers. But Driver is the actor who really impresses. The 34-year-old Star Wars samurai pitches in with two characters: his cop self and his undercover KKK wannabe persona. How he changes back and forth speaks to his talents, and brings drama to the film.
The movie also gives us some seriously reprehensible villains. When Zimmerman visits the Klan, he meets a slew of the worst racists this side of Django Unchained. They talk so casually about annihilating an entire race it makes your skin crawl. A couple exuberantly talk killing black people in bed and that's not all. If you thought Nazis were bad, you gotta see these guys (and girls).
Lee provides his usual style also, handing much of the film over to a sweeping score by Terence Blanchard. Lee is an auditory filmmaker and BlacKkKlansman may be his most impressive-sounding film. It hums with gravitas.
Lee doesn't forget about film history either. He's more than aware he's working in an industry and medium that's seen its share of racism over the years, and has even helped spread it. Shots from Gone with the Wind (a film hugely sympathetic to the Confederate cause) and 1915's silent movie Birth of a Nation (which portrays blacks as inferior and the KKK as heroes) punctuate the message.
BlacKkKlansman also ends with newsreel footage from Charlottesville in 2017, when white supremacists marched in the streets and were met with protests, leading to the death of one person. Things are not different. Forty years later, things are worse. The country is more divided than ever before in modern times. What we need are more people, more cops like Ron Stallworth and Flip Zimmerman to fight on the ground level and effect change with intelligence, not force.