Pick of the Week: BlacKkKlansman
In his hard hitting yet darkly humorous film BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee uses a moment in history to offer bitingly incisive commentary on current events.
Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman is his most politically correct film yet. This despite the fact that it exposes what is perhaps America’s least acknowledged but most apt feature - its ideological hypocrisy in the face of racism. Since 2016, after the country elected to the Oval Office a brash mouthpiece instead of a President, the bigoted lens of its governing elite has been outed, and it’s no surprise today to find it being openly accepted as an integral part of "making American great again," as important as the white picket fence is to the idea of Americana. Whether one considers the brutal Vietnamese war, or the heavy handed response by the U.S. Security forces during the protests against the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year - in 2020 America’s claims of being a ‘beacon of equality, liberty and life for the world’ sound shallow, to say the least.
BlacKkKlansman brings to life the fascinating true story of Ron Stallworth, a rookie detective, who happens to be the first black policeman recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department. The film is set in 1972, amidst great conversation, debate and activism around black liberation, following in the steps of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s. One day, Ron Stallworth stumbles upon a newspaper advertisement put out by a newly launched, local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan which invites interested individuals to call in. He decides to follow the lead and discovers that there is also a reactionary revival of white supremacist lobbies underway across the US. Except that they are no longer officially known by their infamous (and banned) acronym, but rather by the mysterious name of ‘The Organization.’
Ron's fluency in ‘white man’s English’ over the telephone, instead of the stereotypical, reductive ‘jive’ that black people were believed to speak, convinces Walter Breachway, the chapter leader that Ron Stallworth - especially with a name like that - could be nothing but an upstanding, ‘nigger-n-Jew-hating’ white Christian American. And all is well, until the Klan decide it’s time to meet their most promising new recruit face to face. Lee’s effortlessly controlled, impressive direction, amplified by his signature whimsy, gives flight to the stranger than reality circumstances that follow - ambitious and ‘born ready’ Stallworth, unwilling to let his first investigation fall flat, ropes in Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish American fellow detective to pose as him when meeting the Klan.
The film’s Oscar winning screenplay, adapted by Lee along with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott is the central pillar around which the film’s near universal appeal is wrapped. It’s layered approach to humour, whether in its dialogue or in the comic timing written into its characters, or its grasp over the acute irony found within the story itself, is witty and piercing but at the same time feels completely natural, colouring each scene with a deep sense of fulfilment. Credit is also in order to the film’s entire cast for their performances, and for the ease with which the film flows, in particular, to the chemistry between John David Washington and Adam Driver, its male leads. Driver’s aptly cautious and restrained Flip is the perfect compliment to Washington’s hot headed Stallworth, with Washington’s brooding performance instinctively capturing the latter’s simmering angst, as he finds himself in the lonely position of being one of the only black men who believes in changing things from the inside.
BlacKkKlansman cleverly uses history to offer an unsuspecting but powerful commentary on the struggle of the African American people. It incorporates many motifs of black activism - from likening Patrice, the Black Students Union president Ron is trying to protect, to political activist Angela Davis, and the inclusion of national civil rights leader Kwame Ture into the plot to the rousing narration of the lynching of Jesse Washington by Harry Belafonte. The film’s power and universality however, lies not in its blatant vilification of white supremacists nor for that matter of the US government, but in its clear distinction of the rotten apples from the rest of the basket. It does not seek to lay all blame for the oppression of blacks and other minorities in America, on any one particular doorstep, but rather identifies the weakest links in the system - not all cops at the Colorado Springs Police Station are racist ‘pigs’, many are amiable and even supportive of Stallworth’s zeal.
It is this furiously objective stance of the film, which mirrors the emotional and professional conundrum its lead finds himself in, that makes BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee’s most politically correct film. Interestingly, it is also this very stance which finally takes the lid off of the self serving, hypocrisy that pervades through America’s political system. Despite its optimistic climax, the film ends on a cautionary note - with footage from the deadly 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia interspersed with speeches of David Duke, a still respected former Klan Grand Wizard, and President Donald Trump refusing to condemn white supremacy, leaving us with a haunting taste of the entitlement with which this hypocrisy translates into real life - in the form of racist rhetoric, ritual and eventually rules.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Spike Lee is a celebrated, award winning American film director, producer, scriptwriter, actor and professor. His independent production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983 most of which explore race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other political issues. Four of Lee's films - Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls and She's Gotta Have It were each selected by the US Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." His latest film is Da 5 Bloods.