Spike Lee takes a true story and transforms it into a punchy political commentary, staggeringly specific to the story it explores and universal in the message that it leaves the audience with.
Ron Stallworth becomes the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. Tired of the archive room where he suffers constant microaggressions and blatantly racist comments from the white policemen, he volunteers to become an undercover intelligence officer. Having found an advert seeking potential recruits for the Ku Klux Klan, he calls the local branch and gets invited to a meeting, starting an operation to infiltrate the local part of “the organisation”. With help of his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman, they convince the Klansmen to trust them – Ron maintaining the persona on the phone, Flip portraying him in person – and start an operation to combat the violent ideology of the group.
The film kicks off with Gone with the Wind footage – a film long disputed since its release for the portrayal of black people and perpetuating Civil War stereotypes (Hattie McDaniel, who received an Oscar for her supporting role of Mammy in the film that came under fire for the characterisation, sat at the separate table during the ceremony in a hotel that also had a strict segregation policy). We cut to the faux archive propaganda footage, executed by Alec Baldwin who famously enraged the President of the US with his impersonation, which doesn’t seem that far away from what you can find on the Internet’s poisonous communities, but the preceding film reference is not the only time when the director alludes to cinema and its role in bringing social change about.
By using the connotations to the 1939 melodrama and exploring the effect that The Birth of a Nation had on reviving the KKK, Lee questions the power of the film as a medium that can have influence on the social mores, values and trends as a product of its times, and follows through with his own commentary on the current state of events. The pointers to the learned perspective and subjective gaze in the speech about Tarzan and conversation about blaxploitation films further this point. And to follow through, the director hits the audience with a kick in the gut; a political commentary that rings relevant to the events we follow on the news every day. He pulls no punches, plays no subtleties, and strikes with contrasts that leave a profound mark on the audience.
A terrifyingly accurate, ironically funny commentary on the modern political climate unfolds as the film progresses, largely by the contradistinctions it builds. Trying to understand the tides that can make toxic ideologies seep into the mainstream, the film revisits the trigger moments from the previous century and pits it against the depiction of current events. Ron’s trusting remark that America would never allow a racist to become a president is later followed by the footage from the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Donald Trump’s “fine people” commentary that’s yet again foreshadowed with a mirroring comment from a white police officer, as well as the clips of Duke recorded shortly after Trump’s election. A poignant scene in which Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte’s moving cameo) recounts a brutal lynching at a student society’s event is interwoven with images of white supremacists falling over each other and cheering as they watch The Birth of a Nation as a part of their rituals.
But that’s only one of many disparities. The entire plot revolves around the protagonist using “a white voice” rather than African-American Vernacular English to infiltrate the KKK, touching on linguistics and identity, too. More thoughts on identity follow as Flip starts to rethink his own Jewish heritage and the lack of attachment to it fuelled by not cultivating it. And finally, there’s the question of the police’s racially motivated abuse of power, and Ron’s own torment between the function he performs and the activism he’s exposed to – prominent all along in the conversations Ron has with his girlfriend Patrice who is also a leader of the black student union, then culminating in the final scenes that flip our expectations in the way that Get Out did recently (Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers of the film). We’ve got little victories and failures that make us clench our wrists, leaving us with a feeling of unease. The work has been started but is far from the successful finale; the closure we yearn for is replaced with a call to action.
Thanks to these juxtapositions, the characterisation never falls flat. Ron is torn between the choices he needs to make, and John David Washington creates his protagonist with a right dose of dread, rebellion and humour. Adam Driver plays Flip, who becomes more and more conflicted about his own numbness when it comes to the issues that seemed to pass him by; the actor keeps relentlessly focused on the double life of the character he needs to create in order to become believable to the Klansmen and viable as a questioning, confused policeman. A remarkable performance from Laura Harrier as Patrice, the leader of the black student union, oozes with wit and charisma, while the portrayals of the KKK members lead us to the nightmarish land of bigots blissfully unaware of how caricatural they actually are.
Unrelenting tension and rhythm underlie the story fuelled by sharp editing and certain visual aspects, too. The director uses the split screen to highlight the irony in the conversations between Ron and David Duke on the visual level, there are further footage interjections from the cross burnings, mugshots on files, and the Seventies film posters to supplement the dialogue, and finally there’s his iconic floating dolly shot towards the end that only deepens the unease brought about by the final resolution. As original as ever, Lee carries on his creative choices to make his point clear and support the punchy narrative.
Spike Lee focuses on a dark part of the history to open the polemic about the current socio-political situation; a critique of American ways, brilliantly specific to the story it tells, but also universal and relevant to every place affected by the rise of extremism. By the end, the takeaways are cut clean: the ignorance and prejudice cannot be ignored and merely dismissed as ridiculous; they remain in hiding for only so long before they snowball and breed violence quicker than we bat an eyelid.
BlacKkKlansman opens in the UK on the 24th of August 2018.
- BlacKkKlansman (2018)