Are you down for the liberation of black people?
Picture this: a young woman tirelessly seeks after a doctor in what appears to be an aid zone for war veterans. As the camera zooms out, hundreds to thousands of bloody bodies and dead soldiers lie on the ground as a confederate flag hangs high and flaps in the wind. You might be thinking of Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind, and you’d be correct. It’s the opening montage of Spike Lee’s emotional and provocative story that follows up with a hate speech inviting feelings of anger and disgust. Together, these scenes immediately set the tone for what’s to come.
Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD), on his mission to infiltrate a Colorado chapter of the KKK. The film takes place in the 1970s, a time of intense social revolution as civil rights issues maintained a forefront among black Americans. It becomes painfully and chillingly obvious how relevant so much of the film’s commentary is, as Lee parallels “old America” to its current state of affairs through appropriate storytelling. And even throughout its humorous script, the message is clear and as gut-punching as it has ever been.
There’s a lot that is unmasked prior to Detective Stallworth being granted his undercover case. On his first assignment, Ron must attend a black student union meeting in which the guest speaker, Black Panther ex-leader Kwame Ture, ignites a room full of black people as he delivers a sermon-like speech encouraging the audience to be bold and proud of their heritage. “It is beautiful to be black” asserts Kwame as pictures of gorgeous black faces of all skin tones bearing wide noses, nappy hair and thick lips grace the screen over his speech. It will be one of the most uplifting scenes for audiences around the world and deservedly so. It’s a standout that captures the sense of family that many black people must have felt during that time. And ultimately, it pierces through the screen and into your heart as if you were a member of that union, sitting in that room full of hunger waiting on a plate of inspiration during the darkest of times.
Once the infiltration takes place, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver), a white CSPD detective, must pose as Ron to gain intel on the organization’s (KKK) planned activities by meeting the Klansmen face to face. Though he finds their ideals repulsive, Flip is hesitant on this mission as he believes their gatherings are non-violent. It isn’t until his constant belittlement as a Jew occurs by fellow Klansman Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) that begins to trigger Zimmerman’s unhappiness with neglecting his own heritage. Therefore, this increases his desire to take down the KKK. Adam Driver puts on a show-stopping performance as Flip to depict such emotions. These moments lead up to a stellar performance and captivating delivery of lines that truly represent the brilliance of his character’s cunning undercover work.
Spike Lee has never been one to shy away from addressing racial injustices and the “black experience” on screen as evidenced by his film catalog. And with BlacKkKlansman, it’s no different. This time, however, he offers satirical storytelling to balance the magnitude of the subject. Additionally, Lee’s decision to include various perspectives only enhanced the film to its greater merit. For instance, we’re shown both good cops and bad cops throughout the film which further pushes the narrative of “both sides.” Even within the KKK, the audience is introduced to the “charming” and eloquent members as well as those who can barely read and follow directions (i.e. the uneducated Rednecks) – all of which accurately represent the fact that racists may come in all shapes and sizes. The beauty of it all is that it’s done tastefully, and nothing feels overdone or underachieved.
The 2 h 15 minute comedy-crime film is a work of art that could only be achieved by an amazing team. With the help of a talented pool of producers including Get Out‘s Jordan Peele, Spike Lee has created a poignant, intelligent and stylish movie for everyone. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin incorporates impactful usage of color and stunning imagery that sets the mood of every scene. And with music by Terrence Blanchard, the audience is sure to feel the gravity, soul and heart behind every moment. Truly, this collective talented team pulls out all of the stops to create such an uplifting yet disturbing depiction of 1970s America.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is at its best when it uses humor to showcase the extremes of racist, white America. However, it neither takes away from the seriousness or importance of the subject matter. It simply presents the senseless injustices as so comical that it feels entirely parodied. The truth of the matter, though, is that it’s not; and the audience will surely grasp the chilling reality of the similarities of today’s world – 40+ years after Stallworth’s investigation. And just in case you forget due to the charming and contagious humor, Spike Lee reminds you of the film’s alarming themes as he incorporates the devastating footage of Charlottesville’s KKK March from 2017. It’s a theater experience that is truly heartbreaking – none of which matches with those who had to endure it in real life. Its incorporation into the film is the bittersweet reminder that while BlacKkKlansman can at times poke fun at the ludicrous notion of a black man infiltrating the KKK using his “white voice,” its ultimate goal is to reveal how hatred in America will never die unless we the people give say, influence and representation to all Americans.
All power to all the people.