Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” runs the gamut from absurd to scary, hilarious to genuinely moving. It’s messy, energetic, and powerful filmmaking that makes the connection between the overt (and often cartoonish) racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the subtler (but equally insidious) racism of certain current political ideologies. That chilling connection is drawn seamlessly, and by the end of the movie, it’s really hammered home. The fact that the movie is based on a true story (“some fo’ real fo’ real shit,” declares the opening caption) only serves to highlight the incredible – and often bizarre – nature of the sociopolitical struggle for racial equality and justice. What a crazy road it’s been!
The movie follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, actor Denzel’s son) through the ranks of the Colorado Springs Police Department as he and his team of undercover agents infiltrate the local KKK. The most salient aspects of the movie involve Stallworth’s internal conflicts of identity, which are literalized in his strained relationship with the local Black students’ group and its organizer, Patrice (Laura Harrier). “Are you a pig?” she abruptly demands of Stallworth while on a date. He lies that he’s not, but not before defending the profession. “I don’t really use that word,” he says.
That moment, which speaks to a gaping chasm between personal and social identity, brings up the reflexive question facing contemporary activism: can systemic flaws be addressed from within or is the whole system rigged against such remedies? By the end of the movie, we are no closer to resolving these deep-seated issues, but several key things have been accomplished. First, the true nature of the morally and intellectually bankrupt thought-system of white nationalism is exposed. Seriously, these KKK members are utterly moronic. Second, we can trace the lineage of modern systemic oppression to its appropriate source and recognize it for what it is. When footage is shown of Charlottesville and Trump saying that there were “fine people” on both sides, we understand that we have come full circle.
The movie isn’t so much a roadmap of how to answer these questions as it is a way to fully understand the question itself. In order to effectively fight, you must first understand what you are fighting against. Confronting the cultural assumptions of our current predicament is a good first step. The movie opens with that long tracking shot from “Gone With the Wind,” where the wounded Confederate soldiers are laid out in an endless display of carnage. Another key scene discharges D.W. Griffith’s silent-era spectacle, “The Birth of a Nation,” for the cultural embarrassment that it is. These scenes remind us of the permanent stain on the soul of America – a country that was once able to reconcile equality with racism, democracy with slavery.
These kinds of cultural assumptions must be evaluated and seen for what they truly are. To see them – truly see them – is to see evil and maybe understand a little more about it. The type of racism seen in “BlacKkKlansman” has long been thought to be unacceptable in our modern society. Therein lies the ultimate devastating effect of the movie, which shows that this sort of racism hasn’t ended so much as it has transmuted into subtler, more acceptable forms. “America would never elect someone like David Duke for President of the United States,” Stallworth says at one point.
How bitterly ironic, no?