BlackkKlansman Tells a Bizarre Story To Breakdown Racism and Politics Today
As the credits prepared to roll at the end of BlackkKlansman, the entire theater sat in stark silence. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop, then, an eruption of applause. This was allegedly the most common, and most appropriate, reaction to the film.
In Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackkKlansman, the indie director brings viewers an uncomfortably clear look at the history of white supremacy and makes direct parallels to modern-day America. In the retelling of a bizarre and racially charged story, Lee brilliantly addresses the current state of racism and politics.
By Christianna Wiggins
The film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie detective on The Colorado Springs Police Force in 1978. He is the first black cop in the precinct, and with the help of a Jewish detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan.
Stallworth is assigned to an undercover detective unit, and his first job is to attend a meeting where political activist, Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is encouraging a “black revolution.” Based on Stallworth’s reaction to the event, and his blossoming relationship with the organizer, Patrice (Laura Harrier), it is insinuated that Stallworth wants to change race relations from within the system. The latter continues to fuel a low level of inner conflict throughout the film for Stallworth and drives his desire to infiltrate the Klan.
One afternoon, Stallworth sees an ad in the newspaper classifieds seeking new KKK recruits, and he applies on a whim. He says “I hate blacks. I hate Jews, I hate Mexican and Irish. Italian and Chinese, but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those n*ggers.” He later receives a call from the KKK, and because of his eloquent vernacular, the Klan assumes he is white and agree to let him join.
To pull off a membership, the black detective obviously needs a white cover, and Flip Zimmerman, reluctantly steps in to help. While Stallworth talks to the KKK members on the phone, Zimmerman attends all of the meetings, wearing a wire, and reports back. At first, many members of the clan are skeptical of Flip and question him constantly, but they slowly start to trust him.
As the film continues, Stallworth and Zimmerman perfect the art of being one person and successful dupe the KKK. The concept is both inherently funny and intensely sad. The buddy cop angle is amusing, as viewers see the initially tumultuous but ultimately loving dynamic between Stallworth and Zimmerman. With groovy dance scenes and colorful callouts to film like Cleopatra- in his classic style, Spike Lee interjects conversations with film posters- the movie flows easily. Still, there is no full comic relief as the audience is hit over the head with the heavy racial content of the film.
The film is filled with explicit racial slurs, and strong juxtaposition between the white power and the black power movements. A trend viewers have seen in Lee’s films such as Do The Right Thing. There are chilling scenes of the hooded Klansmen repeatedly screaming “WHITE POWER,” directly followed by Patrice and other members of the Colorado College Black Students Union chanting “BLACK POWER” The side-by-side comparisons are masterfully done. The scenes are filled with tension that showcases the disruption and division caused by racism. Racism that isn’t just black and white.
Throughout the investigation, detective Zimmerman starts to question his own identity. He had never thought of himself as “different” because of his religion. Then, he found himself having to defend and deny his Jewishness to Klan members, and he is suddenly consumed by his faith. “I was just another white kid. And now I'm in some basement denying it out loud. I never thought much about it, now I'm thinking about it all the time,” Zimmerman tells Stallworth.
The film beautifully shows the characters going through these difficult epiphanies. The cops, and even Stallworth, start identifying different forms of racism that surround them daily. Each character goes on a small but meaningful personal journey to realize the very real threat of racism after being exposed to the KKK.
Still, the film falls a little short in fully fleshing out these personal arcs, but it makes up for it in the callouts to present day racism. There are few heavy-handed jokes that reorder Trump’s infamous “Make America Great Again” to poke fun at POTUS, but the parallels throughout the film that focus on police brutality and cultural racism are the meat of the story.
During Kwame Ture’s speech at Stallworth’s initial undercover assignment, he mentions that black people are getting “shot in the streets” by the police, and given no justice. This can easily be compared to stories like Trayvon Martin and Tamar Rice. Two unarmed black juveniles, shot by police for appearing to be armed in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
After Ture’s speech, Patrice and her friends are pulled over by the police on their way home. The officer is very handsy with Patrice and asserts that he can do anything to her and “no one would blink an eye.” This narrative can be compared to the killing of Philando Castile, the man who was shot during a routine traffic stop in 2016. The officer was found not guilty on all counts, even as video surfaced of him abruptly shooting Philando with his four-year-old daughter in the backseat.
The film was also dedicated to Heather Heyer, the woman who died protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement in Charlottesville in 2017. Heyer was run over by a white supremacist that sped through the march in a car in an attempt to hurt protesters. The horrifying video of her death was paired with video of President Trump refusing to place the blame on white supremacy, at the end of the film.
The message of the film was clear: the racism we encounter today has strong and deep roots. It is not new and it is likely not leaving anytime soon. The only way to overcome it, is for everyone to acknowledge the major flaws within the system, and start fixing it from within. Instead of quick fixes and well wishes, it is time to completely reinvent the wheel.