According to The New York Times, Spike Lee’s new joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” is his best nondocumentary feature in over a decade and one of his greatest films of all time.
In the middle of the movie, Ron Stallworth and his sergeant are arguing about the future of the Ku Klux Klan. It is the early ‘70s and Ron (John David Washington), the first African-American officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, infiltrated the local chapter of the KKK and spoke on the phone with David Duke (Topher Grace), the organization’s national director.
Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito) supervises the undercover unit within the department. He is convinced that the smooth-talking, telegenic Duke is setting his sights on the political mainstream. Duke, and those who support him, are building an electoral strategy based on hot-button issues like immigration, affirmative action, and tax reform that should help him on the road to the White House. However, Ron just laughs. The men he is tracking are possibly dangerous and patently ridiculous. “America would never elect somebody like David Duke president,” he says. Then the sergeant asked, “Why don’t you wake up?”
Fans of Lee have heard his plea before – those who remember the last scene in “School Daze.” It has less to do with the iffy, easy-to-satirize concept of “wokeness” than with the urgent need for the character and the audience to see what is right in front of them.
Beyond the stranger-than-fiction, somewhat embellished real-life story – the real Ron Stallworth did infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and he wrote a book about it, “BlacKkKlansman.” New York Times says the book “is a furious, funny, blunt, and brilliant confrontation with the truth. It’s an alarm clock ringing in the midst of a historical nightmare, and also a symphony, the rare piece of political popular art that works in all three dimensions.
At the end of the movie, it reminds the audience, when it makes a harrowing transition from re-enactment of the past to raw, present-tense video – the people currently have a president whom David Duke appreciates. Rather than chime in with the chorus to explain how American got here, Lee muses that the people could have been here all along. This does not mean nothing has changed, rather the racists attitudes and ideas Ron finds among the Klansmen (and around the police station) are simply durable and tenacious facts of national life.
These views have been a part of the legacy of American cinema too. The first image in “BlacKkKlansman” is a famous shot from “Gone With the Wind.” “The image is of wounded Confederate soldiers around the Atlanta railroad station under a tattered battle flag. The climax involves a viewing of “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 D.W. Griffith epic that simultaneously spurred the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and of cinema as an art form.”
Lee uses one pf Griffith’s signature innovations – crosscutting – to unravel the penetrating ugliness of Griffith’s song to the heroes of white supremacy. Modern Colorado Klansmen celebrate the exploits of their predecessors as a group on black students and activists are gathering in another part of town to hear the testimony of an old man (Harry Belafonte). He witnesses the lynching of his best friend in Texas around the time “The Birth of a Nation” was playing in theaters. This is a chilling and revelatory juxtaposition.
The New York Times said, “The righteous rhetoric of racism is conveyed with the scale and glamor of motion-picture technology, while its grisly truth is communicated by means of still photographs and simple words.”
There is an asymmetry between the central insight of the film and its organizing principle.
The first undercover assignment given to Ron is to attend a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, he is formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. He made the phrase “black power” popular in the late ‘60s. Sometimes Duke’s language echoes Ture’s – Klansmen and black militants both call the police “pigs.” To see “BlacKkKlansman” as a story of the embattled man in the middle, fighting extremists on both sides, would be to miss the point.
Yes, Ron is stuck in a tricky situation. While attending the Kwame Ture event, he starts to flirt with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). She is the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College. As the relationship progresses, they argue about philosophy and tactics. Is it better to work within the system, push against it from the outside, or just smash the system to pieces? This is an old, unresolved debate. It causes tension that has partially defined Lee’s career.
Lee has a fearless embrace of contradiction that gives “BlacKkKlansman” heft and velocity. The New York Times says it is worth stopping “to admire its sheer, dazzling craft, the deftness of its tonal shifts – from polemical to playful, from humorous to horrific, from blaxploitation to Classical Hollywood and back again – and the quality of its portraiture.”
Washington is a charismatic and witty, and like Ron, he takes his job seriously and he enjoys it.
The suspense and layers of intrigue in the film reveals some of the underappreciated genre skills of Lee, according to The New York Times. The low-key psychological insight demonstrates his way with actors, which is also underrated.
Ron reaching out to the Klan over the phone. He “whitens” his voice in the manner of multiple stand-up comedians, however, he cannot actually attend the meetings. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is the one who will be attending the KKK meetings. He starts by hanging out with the local stalwarts of the Klan, who includes a square-jawed bureaucratic type named Walter (Ryan Eggold), a clever devil named Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), and a drunk doofus name Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Flip and Ron keep tabs on a terrorist conspiracy that is evolving amid the posturing and slur-slinging, with the help of Detective Jimmy Creek (Michael Joseph Buscemi).
“Lee has often been a gleeful curator of racial invective, and he observes the Klansmen with a fascination that stops only a few degrees short of sympathy. They are monstrous and clownish, but more than just figures of fright or mockery. Understanding what makes them tick is as much Ron’s mission as bringing them down.”
The dramatic crux of the movie is Ron’s predicament, although, his is not the only identity crisis under scrutiny. Throughout his career, Lee as frequently focused his attention to the souls of white people, with a volatile mix of pride, defensiveness, resentment, and denial, which motivates the characters in, most notably, “Do the Right Thing,” “Summer of Sam,” and “25th Hour,” according to The New York Times.
Flip criticizes Ron for acting like their undercover work is some sort of crusade. He says, “For me, it’s a job.” Ron talks about Flip’s Jewish background and reminds him of the virulent anti-Semitism that goes with the anti-black bigotry of the Klan. Flip responds by saying that he never thought about being Jewish, he was just another white kid.
“BlacKkKlansman” is about the boundaries of group identity, and how one can or cannot cross them. When he is on the phone with David Duke, Ron passes for white, however, to Patrice he has a strong presence on the police force is its own kind of trespass. Some of his fellow officers agree but from the opposite side of things. However, white people who seem to have more of everything, also have more opportunities to disguise themselves.
“Just another white kid” – an all-purpose alibi and public discourse abounds in dog-whistles and code words that allow bigots to pass as concerned citizens. Committed anti-racists can quietly sit or laugh politely when they hear hateful comments. Epithets that are uttered in irony may be repeated in earnest.
The most shocking things about Flip’s imposter is how easy it becomes and how natural he looks and sounds. This unnerving authenticity is partially a testament to Driver’s ability to place one performance inside another. It is also a testament to a discomforting and stark truth – “maybe not everyone who is white is racist, but racism is what makes us white.”
By Jeanette Smith
The New York Times: Review: In ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ Spike Lee Journeys Into White America’s Heart of Darkness
Featured by Georges Biard Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – Creative Commons License
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