BlacKkKlansman Review: "The Revolution Will Be Televised"
The first time I saw the trailer for BlacKkKlansman, I was sure it was going to be a comedic fluff piece and nothing more (despite its promise of being based upon “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.”) My mind immediately jumped to the infamous 2003 Dave Chappelle skit where he portrays a blind black man who has somehow joined the Ku Klux Klan, believing he is a white man. I knew I was still going to see the film — it is a Spike Lee Joint, after all — but I didn’t have high expectations for it.
I was delighted to discover I was wrong, and almost ashamed to have doubted Lee’s talent for telling evocative, human stories about the Black experience with just the right touch of levity. The story is, amazingly enough, based on the real-life experiences of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington — son of Denzel and Pauletta Washington) as he undertakes one of the most dangerous undercover assignments in history: infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan as a Black man in 1970s Colorado.
Washington’s performance is both nuanced and satirical, as we watch Ron Stallworth become the first Black police officer for the Colorado Springs police force. Stallworth’s journey isn’t without difficulties, as he is initially assigned to records, where his fellow officers are at once dismissive and critical of his presence on the force.
You don’t become the first Black officer on an all-white police force without gumption though, and Stallworth quickly moves to intelligence (largely because the force needs a Black man to sneak inside a rally organized by the Black Student Union featuring Kwame Ture). The meeting with Ture is where he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier — Spider-Man: Homecoming), leader of the Black Student Union and where he’s exposed to activism for equality and against a racist system for the first time.
Stallworth continues his bid at being the boldest police officer known to man, by responding to an ad in the newspaper for the KKK, posing as a white supremacist looking to find more like him. Eventually, a face to face meeting is arranged and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — Girls and Star Wars), Stallworth’s Jewish co-worker, is chosen to pose as “White Ron Stallworth”. Somehow the scheme, with Ron Stallworth as himself over the phone and Flip Zimmerman posing as him in person works, and Stallworth even manages to develop a real friendship (over the phone of course) with David Duke (Topher Grace — That '70s Show), Grand Wizard of the KKK and one of the most notorious racists alive today. Duke’s introduction begins what is perhaps one of my favorite things about the film: the worst parts of white supremacy.
Stallworth and Zimmerman’s initial introductions to the Klan present them as a group of relatively unorganized, loud, redneck (for lack of a better word) white men who want to rid the world of anyone who isn’t the white ideal. It’s what most people still believe racism looks like. David Duke’s appearance gives us an in-depth look at the reality of white supremacy: hiding the cross burnings and blatant racism behind politics, giving white supremacy a veneer of civility and legitimacy. Duke even slips in a few pithy “America First”s and conversations about making the nation “great again”. Lee goes so far as to have Stallworth say that “The United States would never elect someone like David Duke,” a comment that drew laughs from the audience when I watched, as we all know reality tells a much different story.
You’ll find a lot of similar humor in the film which serves as a reprieve from the heavy weight of the true story the film is adapting. Lee doesn’t just touch on racism (the most obvious social justice issue) but also sexism (when Stallworth discovers his girlfriend Patrice has been molested by a fellow officer during a racially motivated traffic stop there are consequences), anti-Semitism, and even a bit of homophobia. Some people might accuse Lee of pandering, but all of the above listed aspects were key proponents in the KKK’s agenda. If you were anything other than a straight, white, Christian man or woman you were (and still are) under attack.
It should come as surprise to none that Lee also invokes Birth of a Nation — a film oft credited with revitalizing a dormant KKK — and the framing of the film is brilliant. As Patrice and Ron discuss popular Blaxploitation films of the time, we see a group of newly inducted Klansmen (and their wives) watching Birth of a Nation, laughing and enjoying popcorn, and more. Lee sets up several of these scenes; in fact, we watch Patrice and Stallworth’s relationship develop as we witness a white couple plot Patrice’s death in an almost eerily romantic late-night cuddle, we hear officers insist that the force is a “family” and they “stick together” and are shown images of Klan meetings where they promise virtually the same thing, we hear chants of “Black Power” and “White Power” echo off of each other and more. Lee is masterful at evoking emotion and those moments and the ending of this film is a testament to that skill.
When the silver screen was suddenly filled with images of the rally in Charlottesville, hosted to remind everyone that the Klan is not as dead as people like to believe, the theater was silent. You could feel the sobriety sink onto everyone watching. Trump’s comments about the situation are played and we watch as a car barrels over protestors. The film ends with a title card of Heather Heyer, a victim of the Charlottesville rally and the screen fades to black. It was an amazing way to take us from the humorous “We’d never elect a president like that!” moment that garnered laughs, to the reality of the situation: We would and we did, and America is made worse for it.
Spike Lee is at his best when he is trying to get a message across and so, despite a few missteps (some pacing issues, humor being inserted at the wrong time, some issues with how the commentary was placed into the film), BlackkKlansman is perhaps one of his best joints in recent memory.
BlacKkKlansman is currently playing in theatres.