When we were kids, we KNEW that someday in our future we’d all be driving flying cars and that very soon racism would be a matter of ancient history. We’d read about bigotry and intolerance in books written to remind us of a time when people were really stupid. It was so clear.
And then the future happened, and holy shit, we really are that stupid.
I was concerned when I first saw the ads for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman that implied the movie was about a Black policeman joining the KKK. It seemed so contrived. Then I learned it was based (loosely) on a true story Jordan Peele brought to Lee’s attention, and I got a lot more interested.
Here’s the backstory: In 1979, Ron Stallworth, played with a confident goofiness by John David Washington (Denzel’s kid), became the first Black cop in the city of Colorado Springs. Ambitious and aggressive, the rookie launched an undercover infiltration of the city’s KKK chapter by posing as a virulently racist white nationalist during phone conversations with the local wizard.
In need of a stand-in for face-to-face meetings, Stallworth enlists Flip Zimmerman, a fellow Colorado Springs police officer and a Jew, as his body-double. Adam Driver, as the joyously fatalistic Zimmerman comes close to stealing the movie on more than one occasion. But it’s Stallworth’s sting that eventually snares a motley crew that includes Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Yeah, I know. That sounds like Beverly Hills Cop IV, with Axel Foley taking down a whole shitload of stupid white guys.
Combine the unlikely storyline with Lee’s penchant for careening between sit-com style comedy (“You jive turkeys!”), agonizing tension (lots and lots and lots of guns), soaring inspiration (Corey Hawkins’ Stokley Carmichael/Kwame Ture delivers one of the greatest 5-minute speeches ever), slapstick (Stallworth celebrates his victories with a dorky pantomime version of a Bruce Lee beat down), and the most horrific recounting of a lynching ever conveyed in an American film (told by an ancient soul played magnificently by Harry Belafonte) and you have a film that’s often invigorating, illuminating and inspiring, and at other times jarring and confusing.
I get annoyed with filmmakers who try for oooooohs from the audience by employing references to themselves (Spielberg planting C3PO and R2D2 on the hull of the mother ship in Close Encounters), or by using current events in period dialogue.
Lee, rarely a subtle filmmaker, does the latter frequently, for example jumping directly from a ‘70s Klansman making a particularly foul racist remark to a recent news clip showing a conservative of note saying much the same thing. These moments are highly manipulative, but also effective, particularly when pairing clips of David Duke with snippets of the compulsive liar with narcissistic personality disorder currently occupying the White House.
The gimmicks start in the opening scene with Alec Baldwin as the narrator of a racist film bungling his lines while Lee flashes footage of Birth of Nation behind him. They continue through Scarlett O’Hara stumbling through the wreckage of the Atlanta battlefield, to the closing scenes of last year’s murder in Charlottesville, Virginia. But they work God dammit.
The reason these hoary tricks work in BlacKkKlansman is that they convey the real message Lee wants people to understand. Stallworth’s story is incredible, riveting, funny and entertaining. It’s also almost beside the point.
Yes, racism was a central feature of American society during the Civil War, 160 years ago. It was endemic in classic Hollywood films 100 years ago. It was a brutal part of our culture in the 1920s and ‘30s. It oozed into public view in the 1960s and ’70s. And intolerance, ignorance, and racism are alive and well in America in 2018.
By the way, BlacKkKlansman is also a fine movie. Topher Grace of – ironically – That ‘70s Show is spot on as the handsome smiling face of racial purity David Duke. Laura Harrier, as an Angela Davis type character, gives a great performance as a smart woman consumed by her cause. Although she teeters on the edge of losing her humanity and becoming just a diatribe in human form, her massive afro is magnificent. The rest of a nice supporting cast includes every character actor who appeared on a cop show in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Go for entertainment. Learn about human dignity. I always thought The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” would make a great soundtrack for an anecdote about lynching.
Man, I loved that.