Blackkklansman is the first period piece I’ve seen that tells a true story. It doesn’t sugarcoat the past with the progress we’ve made in the present, and it doesn’t shy away from criticizing just how little progress that is. That said, it also connects with our modern world, incorporating phrases such as “America First” into a movie set in the 1970s, and it illuminates the racism and hatred experienced by millions of people. It is a blockbuster to counter D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation*. From this point on, I assume you’ll all see it.
You may have seen the trailer for Spike Lee’s** masterclass on filmmaking. In it, he says his goal with filmmaking, and his strategy to make his mark on its history is to “make films for a diverse audience that show black people in all our glory, faults, warts, and whatnot.” Like many of Spike Lee’s other movies, Blackkklansman fulfills this goal. But what it also does is to contrast and connect the lives of black people with the lives of white supremacists who threaten black communities. Throughout Blackkklansman is the struggle of its characters, many of them supporting the Black Power movement and many of them members of the KKK, to either fight or complete the integration of black people into US society. Early in the film, Alec Baldwin, playing a white supremacist named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (a man with the same skills at remembering lines as Jack Donaghey from 30 Rock) spouts racist profanities against the cause of integration, spitting at the word “brown” in Brown v. Board of Education. At the end of the movie, footage from a real-life Charlottesville protest shows a car plowing into the crowd – the racist intent to harm those fighting for equality is clear. This is not a detached movie – racial injustices continue to run rampant in the United States.
In the roughly two hours between these beginning and ending images is the story of a black man named Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, played by John David Washington*** as a man who expresses himself with the strength of his ambition, the length of his curiosity, and the ferocity of his kung fu power moves. As he rises through the ranks at the CSPD, he is joined by a Jewish man named Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver as a man who begins to recognize that the hatred of some US citizens can be sparked by what seem like trivial matters. Both men are caught between what people think their loyalties and beliefs should be and what they are; they are both exceptional. Together, they infiltrate the KKK.
Throughout is the duality of America, various words of discrimination are used, crowds are inspired, violence erupts, love is forged, the darkest side of America is shown and some of the funniest scenes rip into it mercilessly. Ron Stallworth becomes two people, the real Stallworth’s white voice on the telephone and Zimmerman’s replacement of him whenever Stallworth appears “in person.” There is dancing after police brutality, and love between activists and police. Black power and white power operate in the same space. The flag takes their colors.
But Blackkklansman was also released on the anniversary of the Charlottesville marches, and it highlights eerie parallels between our times and what we think of as less tolerant times before it. Footage is shown from Charlottesville and from The Birth of a Nation. Zimmerman, joining the KKK, is told never to say its name, to refer to it as “the organization” and Stallworth has a meeting with the FBI that “never happened.” Stokely Carmichael and David Duke give speeches. Both sides preach revolution. Alec Baldwin, the Democrats’ Donald Trump, plays a white supremacist. The flag is turned upside-down.
In the past four years in this country we’ve dealt with startling transitions. Barack Obama is followed by Donald Trump, and years of progress is replaced by a more professed revival of racism and Nazism. Racism has become something some of us have begun to laugh at, something to accuse our friends of jokingly, validating it. Political correctness has seeped into our being so thoroughly that we struggle to talk about race productively. In the midst of all this, music and movies have invited us to do just that, we now have To Pimp a Butterfly and Lemonade, Black Panther and this movie. We did that last year at Bellarmine but what we need to remember is that we can’t stop, that we need to become familiar with these issues and we need to become comfortable with the fact that they exist. That our Justice Summit theme has changed this year doesn’t mean that the “new” theme is now our only focus. What Blackkklansman does is to invite us to discuss race again, in the context of recent events, to see the hypocrisy of hatred and also to recognize that someone in a KKK mask is the still most frightening symbol of our society, not a joke. Spike Lee remains as provocative as ever. If you haven’t already, I urge you to see this movie.
*A 1915 movie that rejuvenated the KKK by portraying them as heroes.
**”1957-, American film maker and Knicks fan. Best known for Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 4 Little Girls.” (Apples to Apples). Director of Blackkklansman.
***Son of Denzel Washington