Review: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is eviscerating of contemporary America

by Willem Gerrish | 10/2/18 2:10am

Spike Lee’s latest film, “BlacKkKlansman” is very much a movie created for and about the current American political and racial environment. Though set in the 1970s, Lee’s film is an unsubtle indictment of a Trumpian America that finds itself battling a harsh racial divide despite expectations that our progress and modernity should have left such racism behind long ago.

“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs police force. In 1979, Stallworth devised and executed a plan to infiltrate his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, using a fellow white police officer to serve as his physical stand-in. This story serves as the overarching plot for “BlacKkKlansman,” with John David Washington, Denzel Washington’s son, playing Stallworth, and Adam Driver serving as his white counterpart, Flip Zimmerman. Washington and Driver both give impressive, understated performances that adeptly blend humor, drama and horror to give an accurate portrait of average Americans deeply concerned with the violent and offensive racism that pervades the nation. Alongside them are Laura Harrier as a determined and politically active Colorado College student and Topher Grace as the despicable David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK.

The film walks an interesting line between uproarious comedy and affecting racial drama, and it switches between these moments with shattering rapidity. The opening sequence uses images from the southern epic “Gone with the Wind” and D.W. Griffith’s infamous pro-KKK silent film “The Birth of a Nation” as Alec Baldwin plays a small role as an angry white supremacist spewing hate-speech. This introduction shows the dramatic-comedic juxtaposition of Lee’s entire film: the horrible scenes from “The Birth of a Nation” and Baldwin’s terrifying rhetoric strike to the heart of systemic American racism, yet Baldwin hilariously stumbles over his own words and comedically asks an off-screen aide to help him vehemently assert white Christian dominance. This duality pervades the film as a whole, with comedic sequences contrasting scenes of militant racism and police abuse of black Americans. For example, there is a scene later in the film in which Stallworth chases down and tackles an overweight, maladapt KKK-wife fresh off a botched bomb-planting. It initially renders itself as uproarious comedy and triumphant success for Stallworth, but it ends with white police officers aggressively arresting Stallworth as he tries to hold the woman down and she screams false accusations of rape. The overall effect is that the film is both entertaining and enduringly intense; while the jokes keep viewers engaged, the scenes that really linger and stick with them are the moments of hyper-realistic violence and intensity.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest fault is its shallow and caricatured portrayal of certain characters, in particular the white supremacists who make up the local chapter of the KKK. While Stallworth and Zimmerman are complex and intricate, the Klansmen are rendered like the classic rural racist American stereotype: poorly educated, tactless, gun-loving and diversity-hating. These men are the primary antagonists in the film, and yet they have none of the subtleties that would make for an intriguing counterpart to the imperfect but heroic Stallworth. This changes slightly with the introduction of Grace as Duke, a role Grace initially plays with reservation and quietness. In this film, Duke begins not as some angry, outspoken racist but as a calm, contemplative one, and his phone conversations with Stallworth show him to be genuinely concerned with how diversity might affect America. It’s interesting because in no way does it excuse Duke’s racism, but it does make him a much more intriguing villain than the rest of the film’s white antagonists. Nonetheless, as the movie hurtles toward its conclusion, Duke becomes increasingly angry with his disposition and rhetoric, culminating in a quasi-Catholic confirmation of KKK members and a triumphant showing of “The Birth of a Nation.” Here, Lee does not work in subtle implication but in overt connection, bringing “The Birth of a Nation” back as a defining instance of racism deeply ingrained into the American psyche: a Hollywood film exalted, lauded and taken as truth about the vile evilness of blacks.

Indeed, Lee’s heavy-handedness is evident throughout the film, as he makes clear allusions to the modern political climate and the presidency of Donald Trump. In one instance, Stallworth’s sergeant speaks with him about how Duke plans to insidiously make racism a part of American political doctrine, “... until, one day, he can get someone in the White House who embodies it.” This sternly delivered line is followed by a long, tenuous pause, almost forcing viewers to fill in the blank whether they want to or not: Trump is that someone. And it doesn’t stop there: later on, Duke speaks to Stallworth about his desires “for America to achieve its greatness again,” almost a verbatim replication of Trump’s infamous “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. As if this weren’t enough, the film’s closing sequence takes all of the movie’s implications of modern racism in a Trumpian America and distills it down to a searing portrait of the contemporary American truth. Just before the credits roll, Lee skips from 1979 to 2017 with real-life footage of the horrendously violent Charlottesville riots in August of that year. Lee uses images of neo-Nazis and white supremacists championing the Confederate flag and screaming hate-speech and intersperses these images with clips from Trump’s press conferences about the riots. Then, in a deeply affecting clip, Lee shows real footage of a white supremacist deliberately driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, which results in the death of one woman. The film’s closing image is of an upside-down American flag that fades from red, white and blue to the sharp contrast of black and white.

This final sequence initially comes across as almost unnecessary — it’s like Lee is giving us the SparkNotes version of his film, telling us exactly what he means and what we should take away from it. In most instances, I would say this ruins all the subtlety of film that makes it such a fascinating medium for statements about society and politics. But after thinking about this scene and the film as a whole, I can see how Lee correctly thought it a necessary addition. It transforms “BlacKkKlansman” from a quiet roar into a searing scream — a viscerally overt statement about the horrific nature of racism, violence and politics in contemporary America. Lee makes certain his viewers know that this is not the stuff of imaginative fiction; it is the stuff of the immediate, tumultuous American reality.