BlacKkKlansman¸ Spike Lee’s winner of the top prize at Cannes this year, is one of those films that gnaws at you weeks after you’ve seen it.
At least, that’s what has happened to me since attending the Brooklyn premiere at the end of July.
I did my best to assemble some thoughts about the film.
Raise one for white-sounding black people!
Ron Stallworth’s white voice got this whole story rolling.
I say that partly in jest, because of course there’s no one way black people sound. There’s no one tone. However, cultures can and do have specific tones.
I have written in the past about not having what is considered a classically black voice, and how that can be reflected in a judgment on my blackness. I grew up with “You don’t sound black” easily turning into “How black are you?” inside the community – whether as simply corny/unhip or as a full-blown sellout.
Sorry To Bother You seeks to reengineer the sting of black people doing the “white voice” by placing it within the context of capitalism and aspirational advertising, not simply as a “white people do this, black people do that” joke.
BlacKkKlansman, however, doesn’t really posit Ron Stallworth as doing white voice as much as it hangs on language. Stallworth tells his chief that he can speak King’s English as well as jive. John David Washington plays the role with a Western twang to his voice, as may befit a man who grew up in El Paso, Texas, and Colorado Springs, Colo., with a military father.
Washington also reminds me of Bart in Blazing Saddles. Both Bart and Ron bring a wiseacre humanity to putting one over on racist white people, while in other moments they let loose the pain, disappointment and fear humming underneath their existences. That no matter how deep you know the shit goes, it still can shock you.
It’s nice to cut loose sometimes
Essentially, a prank call lies as the center of BlacKkKlansman. A black cop, pretending to be white, phones the Ku Klux Klan and talks his way into membership.
That hook alone sounds like a joke, especially because it already was one. Spike Lee said that when co-producer Jordan Peele pitched Ron Stallworth’s memoir to him, he thought of the all-time Chappelle’s Show sketch about the blind, black white supremacist. (Did you know that was 15 years ago now?!?)
In the scenes of Stallworth talking to the Klan, especially David Duke, the film turns us into the friends stifling their laughter as the ring leader carries out the prank call. With each scene, the prank call escalates, until Stallworth’s fellow detectives and police chief are busting a gut while he’s covering up the receiver.
Ah, prank calls – the great, juvenile comedy institution laid low by caller ID and now largely relegated to morning radio.
Topher Grace’s milquetoast energy is perfect for playing David Duke
When I first saw that Topher Grace was going to play a 1979 David Duke in the film, I thought they had to play to Grace’s comic acting chops.
If you’re a white actor playing a racist in a black film, nine times out of 10 you’re gonna have to be a little bit funny.
Because, more likely than not, the film’s gonna make fun of racism. Because, when people of color make jokes about white people, we’re really joking about the racism that places white people as inherently better than everybody.
Think of Blake Anderson getting laughed at in Dope as the rap-loving white guy who keeps asking if he can say the N-word, Coco’s white friend in Dear White People asking if her hair was “weaved,” or Armie Hammer playing peak white privilege in Sorry To Bother You.
Spike Lee does this, too. In Do The Right Thing, Danny Aiello has some funny charm, right? (More problematically, Lee is part of why Michael Rappaport thinks he has a “black pass” thanks to his over-the-top loudmouthing as America’s Blackest White Guy, such as in Bamboozled).
Best known for playing milquetoast boob Eric Foreman on That ’70s Show, Grace pulls out all the weak, wack-ass cluelessness of Eric. How else can we view Duke, spouting complete nonsense about how he can tell a black voice from a white one, while unknowingly talking to a black man on the phone?
A race film that goes beyond the black-white binary
As easy as the film could have simply focused on white supremacy and blackness given the protagonist and antagonists, BlacKkKlansman also spends considerable time on anti-Semitism and Jewish American identity in relation to whiteness.
The movie script makes Stallworth’s partner Flip Zimmerman, Jewish. By standing in as Stallworth for in-person meetings with the Klan, Zimmerman is confronted by anti-Semitism up close. The experience forces in Zimmerman a self-reckoning with the heritage he didn’t grow up in or feel much attachment to as a secular, non-observant Jew.
The assimilation keeps Zimmerman from potential harm as a not-quite-white person. Yet his undercover assignment throws him into the lion’s den, and suddenly he’s struggling to keep up several lies – he’s Ron Stallworth, he’s not a cop, and he’s not a Jew.
Talk about raising the stakes! A scene in which Zimmerman is threatened at gunpoint to take a lie-detector test to prove himself non-Jewish was by turns comedic and tense. So often goes the process of assimilation and acculturation.
Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, two self-described nice Jewish boys from East Brunswick, N.J., worked on the BlacKkKlansman script before Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott came aboard. Watchel and Rabinowitz said Lee and Willmott took several of their ideas on Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, and ran with them, going harder than what they had put on paper and further driving home the ideas of shared struggle.
BlacKkKlansman’s take on Jewish identity and assimilated whiteness for those with white skin should be included in how the film speaks on today’s events with the Trump White House. The script has been in process since 2015, since the rise of Trump, the resurgence in anti-Semitic incidents, and reemergence of white supremacists and white nationalism since he was elected.
I think of a post-election community meeting I attended, where Jewish neighbors expressed fears that all the progress and assimilation would be for naught with this presidency. Jewish friends of mine shared with me the division in their communities over Trump, between conservative Jews who backed him over his support of Israel, and those who saw Trump aligning himself with the white nationalism that threatens Jewish extinction.
I wonder if Wachtel and Rabinowitz have in them a story addressing those issues of modern Jewish American identity more centrally. I’d definitely want to see it.
There is such as a thing as justifiable radicalism
So much of BlacKkKlansman is, oddly enough, a laugher.
Some of it had to be funny, of course, given the premise.
But I think the film does a fine job of articulating an opinion of the KKK that I’ve experienced among black Americans post-Civil Rights Movement: They are ridiculous. The clothes. The assertion of he-man masterhood amid frequent crying of victimhood. The association with dim-witted hicks. (The movie’s Ivanhoe character is the dumb-hick Klansman to rule them all.)
That ridicule, however, is often married to some amount of fear, because we know the history. We know their aims, and we know how their game ends. White supremacy’s ideology can be ridiculous, but the deeds carried out in its name are terrifying. Those results are death – of minds, of money, of lives, of human dignity.
And it’s even more sickening to see how much they consider themselves noble in their evil. Lee shows this especially through husband and wife Felix and Connie Hendrickson. They get to spoon in bed and express their love for each other, while talking about bombing a black college student.
Ridiculous ideology, terrifying results
The structure of BlacKkKlansman as in many undercover crime stories, tackles dual identity – the police officer living as two men, using deceit as a means for justice.
Ron Stallworth’s relationship to the Klan, the Colorado Springs Police Department, and radical student leader Patrice all involve deceit. He pretends to be white to the Klan. He is advised to swallow his anger at mistreatment by white police officers. With Patrice, he shares his honest, change-things-from-the-inside views, but he’s keeping secret that he’s a “pig,” as Patrice calls cops, and that their meet-cute was an operation to monitor black radicals in town.
A lesser film, however, would simply depict Patrice as an activist killjoy. The movie knows this, as Ron needles her time and again about letting loose, such as during a conversation about Blaxploitation films. In her scenes with Ron, Patrice laughs, dances and drinks. When she ultimately finds out the truth about Ron, her response is hardline, but understandable given her activism and belief system.
This is a Spike Lee movie, after all. Even if you don’t care for the tenets of black liberation, Lee surely does. Early on, he nearly stops the movie dead to take in what feels like the totality of Kwame Ture’s (ne Stokley Carmichael) speech to the Colorado College black student union. Lee’s camera focuses in soft light on the black faces in the audience, those faces taking in Ture’s rhetoric and lighting up with pride and self-love amid a society that denigrates them.
Because Ron is placed between the Klan and the black student union, BlacKkKlansman structurally has the two groups as opposites of each other. The two groups are diametrically opposed to each other, after all. The Klansmen show off their gun collections, and Ture advises gun ownership for black liberation.
However, a lesser film would depict the white supremacists and black liberationists as equals, in some kind of surface-level, both-sides kind of critique. Y’know, like Donald Trump when he refused to denounce white supremacists after the Charlottesville riots in which anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered. (Hold that thought.)
Smashed in the face with the reality we tried to avoid for two hours
BlacKkKlansman drives home that these two groups are not the same or morally equivalent in perhaps the most affecting moment of the film proper. As the Klan cheers a screening of The Birth of a Nation after Flip-as-Ron is initiated, the film cuts back and forth to a civil rights elder, played by Harry Belafonte, who tells the black student union members about the true 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas.
In the screening I attended, the crowd fell silent upon the visage of the 91-year-old Belafonte. The camera walks into the room and finds him, wizened at sitting in a large wicker chair just like Huey P. Newton’s. You can feel Belafonte’s gravitas bend the air around him. You can see the unbound respect of the people massed about him in that room.
His story, of domestic terrorism, is real. The Klan’s story, The Birth of a Nation’s story, is false. Black liberation comes from beating against a world of racist denigration, dispossession and death – what the Klan seeks to uphold. The KKK, both in the movie and real life, is built on violence and murder. In the film, Ron narrowly foils their attempted bombing of Patrice.
In the true story, Ron Stallworth and the Colorado Springs Police Department did thwart the Klan’s plans to firebomb local gay bars in 1979.
Sadly, Charlottesville, VA’s law enforcement on Aug. 11, 2017, didn’t do enough to thwart white supremacists there. Heather Heyer was not saved.
This knowledge, and the reality of our current times, hangs over BlacKkKlansman much of the time, until Lee ends the movie proper and drops us into those sickening days in Charlottesville.
It’s not enough for Lee to imply parallels to today. The final moments smash across your face.
BlacKkKlansman makes the young David Duke into the Richard Spencer of his day. He brings his hateful messages to the public in nice suits and euphemistic language – on jobs, immigration, etc. – that still plays on racial animus and fear.
The goal, then and now, is to move the discourse toward an overtly white supremacist-friendly White House.
They’re currently winning.