The Moral Urgency of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”

The Moral Urgency of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” August 19, 2018
John David Washington, as the cop infiltrating the KKK, in “BlacKkKlansman”

With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee is again in excellent form.  I only wish he had a more hopeful story to tell.  But, as with any true artist, integrity takes precedence over false optimism.

To my mind, Lee has created three of the most important films of the past 30 years.  Do the Right Thing (1989) is a gutsy parable of race relations, its opening credit sequence of Rosie Perez boxing to “Fight the Power” announcing that a stylistic genius had arrived.  Malcolm X (1992) is a stirring biography and Denzel Washington’s greatest role, with an unforgettable epilogue of individual empowerment.  And When the Levees Broke (2006) is a blow-by-blow documentary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, indicting a white America that doesn’t give a damn about black people.

BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s best film in a dozen years.  Even if it doesn’t have the all-encompassing greatness of the aforementioned triptych, it possesses many of their elements.  For starters, its main character – Ron Stallworth – is a real black man with astounding courage, if not as iconic as Malcolm X.

In the 1970s, Stallworth was the first African American employed in the Colorado Springs police force.  Soon joining an undercover squad, he is first assigned to attend a black student union rally where Stokely Carmichael will be speaking, to assess any potential for violence.  While there, he’s moved both by what he hears from Carmichael, as well as the passion of the union president, Patrice.

In these scenes, Spike Lee displays his stylistic prowess, not in a showoffy way but in service to the narrative.  As Carmichael orates charismatically of black beauty – full lips, wide noses, and nappy hair – Lee solemnly cuts to rapt listeners with these features.  At a celebration following the speech, rapid cuts among the dancers allow viewers to share in the joyous revelry.

Not long afterwards, Stallworth is paging through a local newspaper and happens upon an ad for the KKK.  On a whim he calls the number listed and is given the time and place for a recruitment interview.  One of his fellow undercover cops, Flip Zimmerman, is only with difficulty persuaded to play a white Ron Stallworth for face-to-face meetings with the Klan.  The real Stallworth will continue to be the wannabe Klansman over the phone.

Adam Driver and John David Washington, as Flip Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, in “BlacKkKlansman”

Lee masterfully builds suspense as Stallworth and Zimmerman go deeper into the Klan, seeking to prevent any violence against the black community while ducking discovery of their ruse.  So impressed is the local Klan leadership with Stallworth, that he eventually spends hours speaking by phone with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke.

BlacKkKlansman’s script, co-written by Lee, contains a surprising amount of humor, often at the expense of Duke and other Klansmen.  It is at its most potent and relevant, however, in showing how the language of racism has been modified over the years to make it more palatable for general consumption.  An opening monologue by an old school Klansman (a terrifically strange cameo by Alec Baldwin) drops words like miscegenation, mongrel, and Commie.  David Duke (superbly, smarmily played by Topher Grace) is the voice of the new Klan, one that eschews mentioning the organization’s name, instead talking of Southern heritage and America First patriotism.

Topher Grace, as David Duke, in “BlacKkKlansman”

Even more than Baldwin and Grace, the lead performances in this film are uniformly excellent and will hopefully result in some Oscar nominations.  John David Washington, the actor playing Stallworth, is a new face to me, but he forcefully conveys his character’s moral courage.  We also see how his dedication to cop culture is challenged by experiencing racism in the Colorado Springs police department, and in meeting Patrice (a convincing Laura Harrier in her first major movie role).  Patrice is eloquently skeptical that the white hegemony will ever cede power to black Americans.

Adam Driver is likewise superb as Stallworth’s partner and white stand-in, Flip Zimmerman.  Fortunately, with performances like the one here, and those in Paterson and Silence, it looks as though Driver has escaped the curse of Hayden Christensen, and won’t be another Star Wars actor of above-average talent whose career will be hobbled by affiliation with this mega-franchise.

Thematically, Spike Lee brilliantly contrasts black history with white mythologizing, most powerfully in a long sequence that cross-cuts between gatherings of the black student union and the Klan.  At the black student union meeting, an elderly speaker recounts witnessing the lynching of an accused rapist.  Meanwhile, across town, the Klan whoops it up as they watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 silent film that revitalized the KKK, by portraying them as saviors of Southern dignity and white womanhood.  (To make clear that virulent racism didn’t debut in the White House with its current denizen, we’re reminded that Woodrow Wilson screened The Birth of the Nation there, saying it was “like writing history with lightning.”)

Lee also saturates BlacKkKlansman with dichotomous visual symbolism.  On the one hand, we have afros and black fists raised.  On the other, we have Confederate and American flags, Jesus in stained glass, crosses, and Nixon/Agnew campaign posters.  I won’t be surprised if some viewers charge Lee with being too didactic in this film, but that’s part of the price of admission to a Spike Lee joint: when has he not been preachy?

Like Malcolm X, Lee closes BlacKkKlansman with an epilogue that makes transparent its present-day relevance.  I won’t spoil the gut punch effect by disclosing specifics, except to say that Lee clearly thinks the David Dukes of America are winning in 2018.

4 out of 5 stars

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