Film Editor Josh Woods falls in love with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and all of its striking comparisons
The latest joint from veteran US director Spike Lee, takes its outrageous story from the real-life memoirs of Ron Stallworth – a black cop who decided to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. BlacKkKlansman is a complex film with numerous narrative threads, and Lee uses the fascinating tale of Stallworth as a means to explore developments in White supremacism, differing approaches to Black advancement, police corruption and American social divisions. As one would expect, BlacKkKlansman takes aim at President Trump, but is careful not to allow itself to become too bogged down in obvious polemic.
Before even introducing us to Ron Stallworth, the film begins with a pseudo 1950s Public Safety Announcement, featuring a caricatured Southern racist (portrayed by Alec Baldwin). He declares that the good ol’ Southern way of life is under threat from racial integration and ‘miscegenation’ – which he blames on the ‘International Jewish Conspiracy’. As an opening segment, it is stark and wryly funny, if not especially subtle (taking aim directly at Hillary Clinton with its anachronistic use of her infamous ‘superpredator’ dog-whistle). It works to highlight the white nationalist ideology that Stallworth will find himself up against.
After this prologue, we fast-forward to 1970s Colorado Springs and meet Ron (John David Washington), where he becomes the first black officer in the city’s stubbornly prejudiced police force. Determined to use his unique position for good, and tired of merely spying on the Black Students’ Union, he spontaneously dials up a want-ad in the newspaper and… applies to join the Colorado Springs Ku Klu Klan! With his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) standing in as his face-to-face double, Stallworth investigates the farcical local section of ‘the organisation’, who may be on the verge of planning something big. He develops an in-character rapport with Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke (Topher Grace) through conversations over the phone, all the while blossoming a forbidden relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the cop-hating president of the Black Students’ Union.
Indeed, much of BlacKkKlansman’s humour and tension derives from Ron Stallworth simultaneously living out the secret life of a Klansman and then mingling with Black Power activists. Lee highlights the absurdity of this through some abrupt scene changes. Ron and Flip’s undercover tasks place the daring pair in immense danger, which creates some great suspense, which doesn’t help, as we’re agonising over whether someone will spot that they’re wearing a wire.
The mission to take down the Klan is a personal crusade for Ron, and he chastises Flip for his initial reluctance to get too deeply involved – after all, these bigots loathe both Jewish and African-Americans. Ron is a man who believes in appealing to people’s better nature, that the best way to reform a racist police officer and, indeed, society is to work within the system. The film explores his frustration and isolation by comparing a police department too apathetic to fix their obvious corruption and prejudice, to Patrice, who inherently despises every single ‘pig’.
BlacKkKlansman is especially captivating in its portrayal of the Black Students’ Union. We first encounter them when Ron is assigned to secretly attend a speech given by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), a fiery orator and pioneer of the ‘Black Power’ ideology. A nervous Ron recoils at Ture’s violent rhetoric, which prophesies armed revolution. But Ture’s call for the students to embrace his ‘Black is Beautiful’ philosophy strikes a powerful chord in him. Afterwards, Ron joins the students for a dance in the Red Lantern nightclub in a stunning example of joy and beauty.This scene is typical vintage Spike Lee – immersive close-ups of Afro-haired activists that reveal the depth and humanity within their deeply politicised lives.
There is a climactic sequence in the latter half of BlacKkKlansman that stands out as a truly excellent piece of filmmaking. Lee cross-cuts between two simultaneously occurring events: a Klan initiation ceremony proceeded over by David Duke, and a packed Black Students Union meeting. Duke decides to screen The Birth of a Nation, the grotesquely racist yet cinematically pioneering 1915 epic that glorified White supremacy and directly inspired the revival of the KKK. Birth draws whoops and cheers with its portrayal of lynchings and Klansmen preventing Blacks from voting. The Black students are listening to a very different side of the story: that of the real-life lynching of Jesse Washington. They learn of his sham trial and shocking mutilation from a elderly witness, affectingly played by Harry Belafonte, himself a statesman of the Civil Rights movement and a man who radiates wisdom. Horror turns to anger and then defiance, in a crescendo that culminates with ‘Black Power’ chants and raised fists. The film cuts back to the Birth screening where the Klansmen have begun saluting and shouting ‘White Power’. Lee invites us to consider the superficial similarities between these chants, but provides a powerful context to explain their fundamental differences.
This rejection of the idea that ‘White Power’ and ‘Black Power’ are in some way morally equivalent is probably BlacKkKlansman’s strongest statement as a film. It serves as an effective rebuke to President Trump’s response to the Charlottesville clashes between a White supremacist groups and anti-racism protesters, where he assigned blame to ‘both sides’.
Footage of Trump’s comments is included in the film’s epilogue to drive home this point. We also see a recent clip from a smug David Duke, and the warning is clear – the Klan have their man in the White House.
VERDICT: Spike Lee adapts the remarkable story of the Black Klansman into a funny, suspenseful and hard-hitting indictment of the Trump era. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.