It’s no coincidence that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman opens on the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist marches, where legions of young white men took to the streets holding tiki torches in the name of “white power.” The marches demonstrated the newfound boldness in the movement and resulted in a number of clashes between the alt-right and counter-protesters, as well as the death of a protestor named Heather Heyer when a white supremacist drove a car into the crowd she was standing with.
Like the film’s opening line says, dis joint is based upon some fo real, fo real shit, but we take that line to mean that the buddy cop comedy plot based on the life experiences of Ron Stallworth, the first African American man to serve as a policeman for his Colorado Springs police force, is the fo real story; and it is, but Lee makes us aware that Stallworth’s story is one that is part of a larger history of white supremacy and racism in America.
Its a narrative that is extremely prevalent here in Orange County, too. Earlier this week, Frontline aired an episode entitled Documenting Hate, a special that focuses on journalist AC Thompson’s efforts to track white supremacist hate groups across the country and investigate their underground networks of organization to understand the threat they currently pose to society. Many of Thompson’s leads directed him to OC, which played host to a number of Trump rallies and neo-Nazi gatherings in the last few years. One event in Huntington Beach last February that was covered by one of our own reporters, Frank John Tristan, was even referenced in the special.
Watching both BlacKkKlansman and the Frontline episode in the same week— again, on the week of the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville marches— leads to a heavy meditation on the type of hate that exists in the world.
Which makes Lee’s film a welcome respite from the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, racists, and other disciples of hate in the world. Stallworth (played by John David Washington) joins the Colorado Springs police force in the ’70s, and decides to go undercover to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan faction by posing as a white man wanting to join the Klan. He begins contacting the Klan by phone and sends in his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose as himself in person.
The film features plenty of laughs, between Ron and Flip’s rapport and the situational humor that arises from the film’s concept, and some cathartic hilarity at the racists’ expense. But Lee isn’t the kind of director who would let the audience off so easy by just enjoying the film’s humor. He consistently makes it clear that we should be drawing parallels between then and now. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK (depicted here by Topher Grace), is set out to normalize racism for the mainstream so he can run for political office someday. On this, Ron says, “Surely the American people would never vote an openly racist person in the White House.” It’s an obvious call back to Donald Trump in the present; David Duke even has a “Make America Great Again” line.
Lee’s MO, as audiences are aware by now, is to interrogate racism in his films, and he purposefully lacks subtlety to get his points across: besides the thinly veiled Trump references, we’re also treated to lessons in racist film history, from Gone With The Wind to Birth of a Nation. But the film’s not all doom and gloom: besides racism being the bleak atmosphere of the film, Lee refuses to be hopeless by inserting moments of joy for his black characters. During one scene, Stokely Carmichael (played by Corey Hawkins), now going by Kwame Ture, lectures at Colorado College Black Student Union where Ron has been sent to investigate any possible radical organizing. Carmichael/Ture’s speech makes mention of the beauty of natural black people, and faces of black youths in the room are superimposed onscreen, looking up in wonder.
Another scene features Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of Colorado College’s Black Student Union with whom Ron takes up a relationship, at a club with other black people dancing and singing to Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s hit soul song, “Too Late To Turn Back Now.” Later in the movie, Ron and Patrice discuss the complicated greatness of blaxploitation films like Coffy, Superfly, Shaft, and Cleopatra Jones.
Lee’s brand of agitprop cinema is highly essential viewing for the present, not only because it speaks truth to the ways that white supremacy has had a chokehold on people of color and specifically for black people, but because he is literally handing the audience the tools to understand where racist rhetoric comes from. At this point in time, where the alt-right and neo-Nazis are gaining traction, let’s hope audiences wake up and listen.
BlacKkKlansmen was directed by Spike Lee, and written by Lee and Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Corey Hawkins and Paul Walter Hauser. In theaters August 10.