Dir. Spike Lee; John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
[4 out of 4 Stars]
In the early 1970s, a black man walks into the police department in Colorado Springs and applies for a job. His interviewers are incredulous: “There’s never been a black cop in this city.…You will, in effect, be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Force.” Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington) answers stoically but not without humor. He’s aware that he is applying for a job where he will almost certainly be the target of racism, not only by those on the streets, but also by his colleagues. After being hired, Stallworth faces racial slurs in the records room and asks to be transferred to undercover operations. When Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) is reluctant, Stallworth responds with his trademark humor, asking if he needs to get rid of his afro to win him over. Stallworth gets the job, and his first assignment is to attend a rally at the Colorado College Black Student Union, where he uses a hidden microphone to report back on a potentially volatile speech by a black activist named Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and meets his romantic counterpart, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who runs the Union.
BlacKkKlansman (2018), which has been nominated for six Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture, is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction narratives. Although some of the dramatic events of the film are invented, BlacKkKlansman is based on some “fo’ real sh*t,” as the opening title cards say. Flipping through the local newspaper one morning, Stallworth sees an advertisement for the KKK, along with a phone number. And so he calls the number and, sitting with his feet up on his desk in the middle of the police station, tells the man on the other end: “I hate blacks. I hate Jews, Mexicans, and Irish. Italians and Chinese. But my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats.” A meeting is eventually set up with the local chapter, and since Stallworth (whose afro alone would turn some white-coned heads) can’t exactly show up to a meeting with the KKK, he requests Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a white-passing Jewish cop, to play the part of Ron Stallworth in person. Zimmerman soon meets with the KKK, quickly rises through the ranks with his racist persona, and gets invited to attend cross-burnings, parades, private dinners with David Duke (a chilling portrayal of the “Grand Wizard” by Topher Grace) and eventually, an assassination attempt on a black activist.
BlacKkKlansman tackles racism in the film world. Director Spike Lee uses footage from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film noted for its embrace of white nationalism and open racism. In Lee’s film, the Colorado Springs Klan members watch the film, jeering and cursing at the black characters and applauding the white ones, leading them to start chanting “white power.” The inclusion of this footage was an intentional choice on Lee’s part. In an interview with The Guardian, he describes watching Griffith’s film in a seminar at NYU while working on his PhD in the 80s. Horrified by the seminar’s focus on Griffith’s cinematography and the absolute dearth of criticism of his embrace of white nationalism, Lee decided to make his own short film, The Answer (1980), about a black filmmaker who is hired to make an answer to Griffith’s film from a black perspective. As the interview points out, BlacKkKlansman is, in some ways, a new “answer” to The Birth of the Nation, showing how that film inspired the KKK members, and how black filmmakers can respond to that hatred. Although I am relatively unfamiliar with Lee’s larger canon, his body of work, with films like Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), is largely directed at exposing intolerance and examining violence, specifically from the perspective of black Americans.
BlacKkKlansman is, however, as much a comedy as it is a protest film. Although the events of the film are often horrifying, Lee shifts tones frequently, blending dark humor with tense, expletive-filled scenes. The portrayal of the KKK, for example, is provocatively ludicrous; it’s laughable to listen to a bunch of slobs who can barely string two sentences together talk about being of a “superior race.” Duke comes across as a scared buffoon: when Stallworth is assigned to police detail during Duke’s visit to Colorado Springs, he asks for a photo with Duke, and the “Grand Wizard” jumps out of his skin when Stallworth claps him on the back. The acting is satirical; Washington plays Stallworth with a certain mixture of barely-controlled mirth and ire. He stares at the camera head-on with a confident defiance rarely allowed black actors. The humor of BlacKkKlansman is dark, used as a way to break the tension of what would otherwise be over two hours of heart-racing situations. Thus when listening wide-eyed to the mounting ridiculousness of Duke’s hateful speech over the phone, Stallworth’s eye-rolls come as an incredible relief. Much of the film is in this tone-switching dark irony, since danger and humor are so consistently linked for Stallworth.
Opposite Washington is an excellent performance by Driver, who plays the version of Stallworth they send to meet the KKK. He is therefore in greater danger than the real Stallworth, and Driver plays the role of the undercover cop well: he portrays both the persona of hatred–we watch him chanting “America first” with the others, but you can also see the tension he feels underneath as he listens to the anti-Semitism of the other members. Driver, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, has been on my shortlist of underrated actors for a while now, starting with his role as Al Cody in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and particularly for his nuanced portrayal of a Portuguese missionary in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). His performance is subtler than Washington’s (who laughs, cheers, and sobs at some points), and this is exactly the point of Driver’s character. Lee’s choice to make Driver’s character Jewish is also a significant departure from reality. It adds tension to the film: at one point, the out-of-control Klan member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) seems to “sense” Zimmerman’s Jewishness. Felix drags him into a secret room and threatens him with lie detector tests and a look at Zimmerman’s genitals: “Is your dick circumstanced [sic.]?” The choice to make Zimmerman Jewish also opens up a discussion of race that extends beyond blackness. Early in the film, Zimmerman says that he’s not willing to risk his life for Stallworth’s crusade, and the latter responds: “You’ve been passing for a WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy. It’s what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn’t that hatred you’ve been hearing the Klan say, doesn’t that piss you off?” Zimmerman, who begins the film as a non-practicing Jew, must espouse anti-Semitism as an ostensible member of the KKK, and he is thus forced to confront an identity he had previously not thought twice about. This not only gives him a much more interesting character arc than Stallworth, who remains relatively unchanged by what he witnesses, but also allows Lee to link anti-Semitism and anti-black racism together in a way that has come to the forefront of American politics recently.
The racial dynamics of BlacKkKlansman reminded me somewhat of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). The racism Stallworth faces is consistent with the backwards Missouri town’s atmosphere. A minor character in BlacKkKlansman, Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) plays a racist cop who intimidates Stallworth and, while pulling Kwame Ture over, sexually harasses (or even assaults?–the details are left somewhat unclear) Patrice, telling her that he can do anything he wants. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) in Three Billboards portrays a similar role, even though their fates end up differently. Dixon is released from the police force but ultimately gets his redemption; Landers, on the other hand, harasses Stallworth and Patrice and is subsequently released from the force in another moment of tone-shifting humor. Thus, while Three Billboards wants to forgive but not forget, BlacKkKlansman wants retribution, albeit in a comedic manner. This message is also demonstrated in the difference between the roles of the black policemen. Stallworth’s role as the first black cop in Colorado Spring parallels that of the new police chief (Clarke Peters) in Three Billboards, but while Peters’s character is restrained by his colleagues, Stallworth is defiant, brave, and ultimately, successful. Perhaps the difference is that Lee is a black director fighting against a system that has attempted to silence him: his message is one of black power, of creating a place for black Americans in film and in society.
What’s interesting about the comparison between BlacKkKlansman and Three Billboards is not so much that these two films were made within a year of each other, but that they describe ostensibly different times and yet are so similar. That the racial tensions in a film about the 70s, just a few years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., are so similar to those of a rural town in 2017 shows how little progress has been made. And this is precisely the point Lee is making. Historical films often say more about the time they were made than about the time they describe, and Lee is fully aware of this. He mixes reality and dramatised events from start to finish, incorporating several different elements. At the beginning of the film, we see a racist monologue performed by the fictitious Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (played horrifyingly well by Alec Baldwin–an apt choice, given Baldwin’s recurring portrayals of President Trump on Saturday Night Live). After Stallworth’s story ends, Lee flashes forward to real footage from anti-Semitic and racist acts from the past few years. The sobering point is that despite the illusion of progress, little has changed in forty years. Furthermore, by creating links to older forms of fascism–through the footage from The Birth of a Nation and the Nazi salutes given by Klan members–Lee demonstrates that although the events of BlacKkKlansman are dramatised, they are far from make-believe.
Despite the fact that BlacKkKlansman tells the story of a small town battling the rise of white nationalism in the 70s–a success story from Stallworth’s perspective–Lee ends the film with a chilling reminder of the present-day political struggles. Footage from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, white nationalist gatherings, and President Trump’s speeches are presented in a montage as a conclusion. For me, this was almost too explicit; rather than letting his audience make the connections himself (and the people watching this film most certainly would), Lee clearly tells us what the thrust of the film is. Trump’s presence in the White House–an image Lee leaves us with at the very end–shows that Duke’s mission, to bring white nationalism out of the backwoods and into the political mainstream, has been entirely successful. At one point in the film, Stallworth tells Chief Bridges, laughingly, that there’s “no way in the world that the United States would elect a president like David Duke.” And then we did.