BlacKkKlansman captures the zeitgeist of the late 2010s: awareness. On the heels of rising political tensions, the American entertainment business has made a massive effort to redefine our notions of diversity and inclusivity. Movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, and television shows like Jane the Virgin and Transparent, have helped to rouse more mainstream awareness for Blacks, Asians, Latinx, and transgender people, respectively.
In most if not all these entries, however, the sociopolitical commentary is a subtlety. Black Panther is primarily an action flick. Transparent is a family drama. They’re not trying to hit you over the head with their messages, but instead affect you on a subconscious level: when you see these types of people in complex emotional situations, they normalize in your brain and you start to think about them more.
BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, is direct verging on didactic. By weaving a pro-Confederacy Gone With The Wind clip in the beginning and attaching brutal clips from last year’s Charlottesville rally at the end, director Spike Lee makes his message explicit. He’s not afraid to shy away from the truths, which is what makes this film so effective. It makes sense, too, because he’s been producing sociopolitical art for over thirty years now.
Spike Lee joints like Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) were landmark African-American productions that influenced modern cinema. While some might argue that those movies were more artistic than his latest film, you could argue that, in 2018 at this polarized moment, Lee feels the need for more direct communication.
BlacKkKlansman can be frustratingly pedagogic, therefore, because anything else would be too weak. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Combine Lee’s fantastic storytelling ability with a sense of modern urgency, and you have his latest film. It’s a big, fat, highly-stylized ad for awareness, and it’s entertaining, too.
BlacKkKlansman presents the late 1970s true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the “Jackie Robinson” of the Colorado Springs police department – aka the first African-American officer. It follows him as he infiltrates his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, using a “white voice” to communicate on the phone and sending in white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to attend meetings in person. They eventually manage to meet the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), and both predictable and not-so-predictable drama ensues.
While the film’s blunt in its primary motives, that’s not to say it doesn’t flirt with ideas below the surface. The romance between Stallworth and Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) tackles the question of whether one can be a part of the police (the oppressors) and still support the Black cause (the oppressed). There is also dialogue that harks back to the legacy of Blaxploitation films, which featured more Black actors and actresses on screen that ever before, but also enabled harmful stereotypes like the Black man portrayed as pimp.
One of the most compelling motifs in the film isn’t related to black culture at all but regards Flip Zimmerman. He struggles with the idea of identifying as Jewish, as he wasn’t raised in that way. But Stallworth claims he’s still got “skin in the game” as these Klan members are as much neo-Nazis as they are neo-Confederates. It culminates in a tense scene where Zimmerman, visually distraught, reveals to Stallworth that he had never even considered the idea of being a Jew before, and now with this investigation, he’s been thinking about it all the time. As a similarly non-practicing Jew myself, the scene struck a chord.
What’s even more interesting is that Lee actually wrote that part into the character. It’s an act of awareness in and of itself, one that speaks to a broad audience and invites viewers to think about the parts of their histories that make them who they are, and to be proud of those aspects.
While the constant links made between the Ku Klux Klan culture of the 60s and 70s and the modern Alt-Right tendencies (“America first! America first!”) grow a bit heavy handed, and even somewhat detract from the film’s retro atmosphere, it’s just further evidence that Lee had a specific vision for the film.
He’s even mentioned on record that he didn’t want it to be a “period piece”; BlacKkKlansman exists in the past, the present, and the future: it’s a reminder that hate is cyclical and manifests in many forms.