[Correction (Sunday, Mar. 3): The original version of this article contained two inaccuracies. First, it stated that Stallworth and Patrice’s dating is “one of the very non-factual liberties the movie takes.” In fact, it is “one of the few non-factual liberties the movie takes.” In addition, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Oscar over “Do the Right Thing” 30 years ago, not 20 years ago.]
As the ceiling lights illuminated and the few remaining audience members of the midnight showing of Spike Lee’s newest Joint “BlacKkKlansman” shuffled out, I listened to the credit music and stared at the crew names rolling by. The film depicts the absolutely remarkable and true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the soundtrack that rung in my ears as my friend and I exited the theater. It was the psychedelic harmony of Emerson, Lake & and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” that I couldn’t get out of my head. It proved a perfect fit for the most euphoric scene in the movie, when the film’s protagonist, undercover policeman Ron Stallworth, and his coworkers celebrated their stymie of the KKK’s plan to blow up the home of Colorado College’s BSU.
As the 70’s trio chants “Ohhhh what a lucky man he was,” the audience becomes aware that this exceptional moment is far from the rule. Moments later, “Lucky Man” abruptly ends, and the police chief orders the evidence from the undercover investigation destroyed. The chief offers Ron a transfer to narcotics, shutting down the undercover division due to purported budget cuts. It’s a disappointing end to the movie, although everything up to this point has suggested we shouldn’t expect more.
Spike Lee doesn’t mince imagery. In “BlacKkKlansman,” he blurs the line between reality and fiction. His directorial voice is palpable to the point that it bleeds through the narrative playing out on screen. The theme is obvious from the beginning when Alec Baldwin, resident SNL Trump impersonator, plays a bumbling white supremacist filming propaganda against the civil rights movement. He drones on about the “agitators determined to overthrow the God-commanded and biblically inspired rule of the white race. It’s an international Jewish conspiracy, may God bless us all.” Baldwin’s scene presents yet another example of Lee’s deft ability to capture racial prejudice and white supremacy on screen.
His protagonist continues this tradition. Stallworth’s understated confidence is the perfect foil to the ham-handed Klansmen he works against. When the protagonist spots an ad for the Klan in the newspaper, he calls pretending to be a white man fearful that his sister was approached by a black man. He enlists the help of Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman, a Jewish officer played by Adam Driver, and together they convince the police chief to launch an undercover investigation into the Klan’s activities. The two form an odd duo to say the least, and together they infiltrate the Klan to its highest rungs.
Washington plays Stallworth with a stoic conviction that allows him to carry conversations to form relations with KKK members and David Duke in disguise. At the same time, he befriends a woman named Patrice (played by Laura Harrier), president of the Colorado College BSU. They begin dating, one of the few non-factual liberties the movie takes. He tells her that he’s in construction rather than a cop, and the duality of their relationship makes the internal tension of the film: she, an activist and he, a cop in secret.
Flip continues infiltrating the Klan, playing Ron in person, while the real Ron befriends David Duke via telephone. Finally, the Klan officially offers Flip membership. The climax of the movie is Flip’s swearing-in ceremony, which David Duke attends in Colorado.
Again, Spike Lee does not mince his imagery. As the swearing in ceremony is playing out, Patrice and the BSU welcome a speaker who witnessed a lynching of his neighbor in the 1920s. Back at the ceremony, the Klan members watch “The Birth of A Nation.” They cheer and whoop and yell with vitriol at what president Woodrow Wilson called, “history written with lightning.”
The dichotomy shows the power of drama, as well as politicians, to invoke hatred. In the 2010s, a movie like that would never have reached mainstream status, but the ability for entertainment to infuse narratives with hatred is becoming increasingly pervasive.
Donald Trump’s political rise was every bit as much about entertainment as it was about dog-whistling populism. And sometimes the two intertwine. Trump synthesized “I alone can fix it” dogmatism with social media and meme culture. The day after he was elected, a classmate of mine boasted, “we memed a man into office.” If you believe Spike Lee’s warnings are on the nose, his pointedness is lifting you from under the rock you’ve been under.
In one scene, David Duke’s radio show plays in the background. Duke asks why congressmen always genuflect to the “Jews,” instead of praising their own race. “No senator or congressman would dare get up and say, ‘I love white people.’ ‘I love white heritage.’”
That was Spike’s writing in 2018; in 2019 real-life congressman Steve King famously asked what was so offensive about white supremacism (The Hill, “Steve King asks how terms ‘white nationalist’ and ‘white supremacist’ became offensive,” 01.10.2019).
“BlacKkKlansman” is also about expectations. Lee has repeatedly come up against the barriers of recognition. As one of the most critically acclaimed directors of the last 30 years, he was not nominated for best picture until this year’s Oscars. His 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” which focused on a multitude of racial issues, but told from a black perspective, was not nominated for an Academy Award. That year, “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture. It’s an artistically strong film, but extremely limited in its approach to issues of race. The storyline revolves around an endearing relationship between a black man who drives around a wealthy but deteriorating white woman. In 2001, Spike Lee popularized the term, “magical Negro,” referring to characters like Freeman’s who act as wise, pedagogical instruments of a white protagonist’s narrative.
In 2018, “KkKlansman” remains about expectations. The whole jig of the undercover story is a situational ironic play in which audience members know Ron is black and Duke and the Klan do not. It’s reliant on Duke believing he knows what black people sound like to the point he doesn’t second guess himself when Ron asks him if he could ever be pranked. “I can tell that you’re a…pure Aryan white man from the way you pronounce certain words,” Duke affirms confidently.
In an early scene in the movie, Ron and Patrice discuss the movies of Blaxploitation. In the 1970s, white movie executives capitalized on the popularity of black culture to market and sell movies. They harnessed an expectation to sell a product, narrowing the scope of blackness to a pimp with a Afro who talked slick. It may have been black actors playing the roles, but it was white execs making most of the money.
Finally nominated for movie of the year, one of the films that “BlacKkKlansman” was up against was “Green Book,” a movie that has ignited controversy (NYTimes, “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?,” 01.23.2019). It’s coming under fire for minimizing and overlooking complexities in race relations to make a feel-good story. Instead of magical Negro it’s a magical Italian who the movie depicts as a caricature of such. Stereotypes have got to be like catnip for movie execs.
Before the Oscars, I felt that “Green Book” had a better chance of winning than “BlacKkKlansman.” 30 years ago, “Driving Miss Daisy” won over one of Spike Lee’s greatest movies, “Do the Right Thing.” It’s basically the same premise except this time the “magical Negro” is the driver for an old white lady. It’s painless and heart warming, and in 2019, misguided. At the Oscars, Spike Lee gave his Spike piece on the loss to “Green Book”: “I thought I was courtside at the Garden, ref made a bad call.”
Last year, “The Shape of Water” and “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, were nominated for Best Picture. “Shape of Water” was a beautiful and touching film that no one will be talking about 10 years from now. “Get Out” was a witty, powerful social moment that addressed contemporary issues in an entertaining expression of art and homage. “Shape of Water” won. Of course it did. This year, “Black Panther,” “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman” are considered hallmarks in African-American film. Of those three, I feel BlacKkKlansman captured the most pressing issues in the most artful way. But in Spike Lee’s own words: “Every time someone’s driving somebody, I lose.”