Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, and Topher Grace
The aggressively renewed racial tensions in America brought on by the rise of national populism and the proliferation of open white supremacy has sparked a uniquely contemporary wave of dramas that depict seldom-acknowledged historical altercations that have been rendered culturally relevant by those current realities. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit from 2017 is one such film, which re-tells a horrific event that took place during the 1967 Detroit riots, but instead of imposing her morality on the historical recount, Bigelow lets the facts speak for themselves; or rather, she forces the viewer to invoke their own morality. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is another such film to Detroit, albeit with an underlying self-awareness that manifests itself through the film’s comedic underbelly.
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s 26th feature length film and tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department in 1979, and his peculiar first case that required him to impersonate a white supremacist with the help of fellow Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and stop an impending attack. Stallworth engages in conversation with the Klan on the phone but when he needs to meet the Klan in person, Zimmerman continues to play the made-up character. At the same time, Ron is tasked with maintaining a cover with the local black civil rights group headed by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), which naturally leads to a romantic relationship between the two. But the centerpiece of the film is the disturbingly cordial correspondence between Stallworth and at-the-time Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), where the film’s foreboding outlook becomes paralyzingly visceral.
BlacKkKlansman is an interesting film in that it isn’t strictly a historical recount of a unique happening, but rather a kind of figurative, socio-historical case study with real-world implications. The film’s topical opening diatribe presented by a racist Alec Baldwin primes us to take the film in as being a figuratively purposed expose of post-civil rights white supremacy: a cosmetic evolution from the more familiar, outspoken racism that has characterized much of America’s past. Once the film gets to Stallworth and his exploits, the narrative more or less falls into a conventional mold, but in that mold Lee brilliantly utilizes the artistic liberties at his disposal to retell these events in a viscerally provocative way; the most notable of which being the use of the “white voice” (last seen in this year’s Sorry to Bother You) when Stallworth engages with the Klan over the phone. Whereas Boot Riley’s film uses the notion of the “white voice” for an absurdist commentary, Lee deploys it with a more pragmatic purpose. Stallworth’s over-the-top racist phone rants and their effectiveness in duping the Klan members serves to illustrate how today, racism has in a lot of ways become obscured into a joke. We laugh about racism and the racist things people say because of how morally ridiculous they are, and it happens to also be a source of a lot of the film’s comedy. To Stallworth, his “white voice” is a kind of comedic act; it’s his belittling way of condemning the white supremacist rationale, which is also how modern society typically decides to downplay such ideas. As a result, racist convictions have been obscured in the social consciousness as being “jokes,” but as ridiculous as racism is, we can not afford to turn a blind eye to people who don’t think it’s a joke: people who passionately hold such beliefs and are committed to act on those convictions.
Detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, is the other half of Ron Stallworth’s plot: the face to the voice. While Zimmerman isn’t characterized as antagonistically racist, he is consistently shown as a complicit participant in the institutionally questionable attitudes the police hold on the topic. Stallworth is harassed by one cop in particular, who even in the presence of Zimmerman and their mostly supportive police chief, is free to provoke away without resistance; instead it’s Stallworth who is told that he must endure the harassment without incident, or he will be punished. That empathy isn’t intuitive for Zimmerman despite his good-naturedness. However, when he’s undercover amongst the Klan members, one of the other especially passionate members constantly suspects Zimmerman of being a Jew, which is just as bad if not worse as being black in the eyes of the Klan. And so it takes that constant scrutiny over his ethnicity for him to finally process the fact that he does in fact have “skin in the game,” as Stallworth puts it.
Spike Lee has always made a point to inspire critical thought with his movies. His trademark mantra, to “wake up,” is loud and clear in BlacKkKlansman. Ron Stallworth wrestles with the moral complexities of being a police officer in a time where police actively persecute his people, and so Patrice, Harrier’s character, calls him out on his need to “wake up.” Flip Zimmerman begins to acknowledge the ideological value of his Jewish heritage even if he doesn’t openly embrace it, and so he is forced to “wake up” to the fact that he isn’t exempt from the dangers of racism, let them be physical, existential, or moral. Lastly, we the audience are challenged to “wake up” to the realities of our world; and in that reality, ideological normalization and social complacency has given birth to a new generation of white supremacists who, like David Duke in the film, purposely refrain from using traditionally racist rhetoric in favor of more euphemistic language with the intent of tricking neutral citizens into letting them to run for office, get elected, and work towards making their white ethnostate a reality. The film ends on an unexpectedly figurative note – showing footage of the real David Duke speaking to a group of anti-Semites in modern day, the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist, and Donald Trump attempting to gaslight the nation into believing fighting racism is as morally corrupt as propping it.
BlacKkKlansman is easily Spike Lee’s best modern work and an essential, nuanced contemplation of race during the Trump presidency. With a stellar ensemble cast mixed with an inherently compelling premise, BlacKkKlansman is immensely entertaining necessary viewing that will likely be a hopeful contender come awards season.