I’ve recently had the pleasure of sitting down to watch Spike Lee’s latest hard-hitting film, BlacKkKlansman. Crammed into a nearly sold-out cinema full of anxious moviegoers, I underwent one of the more pleasant theater experiences of my recent memory. Not only for how respectful and participatory the audience was, but also because of how fascinating the film turned out to be.
Surprisingly based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman stars the unlikely protagonist Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer in early 1970’s United States. Eager to make a name for himself as the first African American in the department, Stallworth concocts a plan to infiltrate and expose the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. His plan? Well, join them of course.
To go through with his ridiculous plan, he enlists in the help of his more seasoned colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). With a black man communicating by phone and a Jewish man physically playing the part, they miraculously fool the blockheaded KKK, yet still run a high risk of blowing the undercover investigation.
Together, Ron and Flip discover a serious threat by the Klan that could result in the deaths of several civil rights leaders, and it seems they’re the only ones who can stop it.
BlacKkKlansman doesn’t hit you over the head with its unique style in the way a Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino film might do to a mainstream moviegoer. Rather, it establishes an oddly laid-back, humorous, Blaxploitation-esque mood, with finely-paced camerawork and a reliance on brass instruments for the soundtrack. Those with the eye for it will notice the stylistic choices that differ from typical modern films of this nature.
Much of the humor in the movie derived from how profane and exaggerated the racial insults were, including many tongue-in-cheek references to modern day politics. This brand of comedy works well in this situation, primarily because the clever writing and acting give way to dedicated performances and believable deliveries. Reaction shots of David Duke (Topher Grace) acting like an ignoramus often got big laughs from the audience, and Adam Driver and companies’ insults were so over the top the audience couldn’t help but laugh.
But as we learn very early on, BlacKkKlansman isn’t all fun and games. We open the film with a monologue by Dr. Kenneth Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) explaining the science behind white supremacy. While this scene is inherently funny due to the goofy way Baldwin portrays this so-called scientist, there’s a dark undertone that lingers throughout the rest of the picture.
It re-emerges again later in a particularly poignant scene where the KKK watch a special showing of the historic blockbuster Birth of a Nation; all while a couple miles away an elderly civil rights activist shares his gruesome experiences with the Black Panthers. The camera switches back and forth between the black and white romanticisation of the Klan and the horrifying realities of racism. Very chilling.
In the same vein, we’re given an interesting array of prejudice, and the many shapes and sizes it comes packaged in. There’re outright bigoted ruffians with a chip on their shoulder that you can point at and say, “That’s the bad guy!”. Then you have more finely dressed, seemingly sophisticated types whose hate boils just beneath the surface. The kind of individual you’d bump into on the street and are none the wiser to their personal beliefs.
Those with a facade of sophistication are more capable of perpetuating those hateful views through subtle displays of racism and political sleight of hand, and the ruffians are more apt to act violently on them. It’s a vicious cycle that grows deep, and Spike Lee conveys it with tenacity and conviction.
And just about when the credits were ready to roll, we’re instead greeted by graphic imagery from the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally of 2017. It’s a grim, horrifying display, and a departure from the stories’ pre-established mood. The message couldn’t have been hit home harder.