BlacKKKlansman

August 17, 2018
'BlacKKKlansman' takes us back to the era of really Big Hair

“There are certain values we feel to be absolute,” wrote Aldous Huxley, in an essay of 1932. “Truth is one of them. We have an immediate conviction of its high, its supreme importance.”

Not any more we don’t. Not in a world of alternative facts, in which inconvenient words and deeds are written off as fake news.

Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman is an unashamedly partisan feature for a divided nation. It takes a true story as the basis for a politically charged examination of racism in America both in the late 1970s and today. It’s a movie made by a director who has no illusions as to the audience he’s addressing. White supremacists are not going to watch the film and repent of their wicked ways. Almost everyone who goes to see BlacKKKlansman will already be on-side.

Lee would probably argue that he is not preaching to the converted, but to the complacent. The extreme views of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan are almost inconceivable to ‘right-minded people’ who take it for granted that the world is there to be shared between different races, creeds and sexual identities. The United States’ constitution is the clearest statement and safeguard of such beliefs.

Reality, however, keeps proving that it’s ridiculous to imagine society is progressing towards ever greater degrees of tolerance. The fear of the other is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and in poor, insular, badly educated communities those fears are turned into faiths. In their way of thinking most people are still living in the Dark Ages, with the growing inequalities of American life and the mind-numbing influence of social media adding to the fog.

Take a community such as Colorado Springs, for instance, where in the late 1970s, Ron Stallworth was hired as the town’s only black policeman. For his first undercover assignment Ron attended a rally by black activist, Kwame Ture (AKA. Stokely Carmichael), to monitor the subversive statements being made.

Most directors would have included only a few lines of Ture’s speech, but Lee gives us a long extract, including impassioned reminders that the revolution is coming, and “black is beautiful”. Undercover Ron (John David Washington), strikes up a conversation with the President of the local Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas, (Laura Harrier) and thinks he might be in love.

The romantic subplot is established at the same time as the political theme. Ture’s speech is meant to be no less inspiring or relevant for black audiences today than it was almost 40 years ago. Meanwhile, Ron’s fixation on Patrice makes him draw a line between his duties as a policeman, and the consciousness of what it means to live as a black man in America.

Back in the office he sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan in the local paper, and rings pretending to be a white man who hates blacks and Jews. The bait is taken and Ron is invited to join, but for this he needs a white proxy – a role taken on by his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who happens to be a secular Jew.

The Klansmen turn out to be a bunch of misfits – from the local leader, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), mindful of head office and his own advancement; to crazed, paranoid Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), and half-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Despite Felix’s suspicions, Flip’s infiltration goes smoothly, while Ron handles the phone contacts, even ringing up the mild-mannered Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), with whom he establishes a sympathetic relationship.

The undercover operation is always risky, but becomes more dangererous when it’s discovered that Felix is planning a terrorist act of his own.

The inherent absurdity of a black man stringing along the KKK means that BlacKKKlansman is always teetering on the brink of comedy. Lee takes us out on that limb, only to return to the vicious realities of racism, most notably in a virtuosic piece of cross-cutting. We switch from an oldtimer (Harry Belfonte) telling Patrice and her friends the story of a black man being tortured to death by a white mob, to shots of the Klansmen hooting and cheering during a screening of D.W.Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – the silent blockbuster of 1915 that portrayed the KKK as national heroes.

This is only the most obvious of many cinematic references, starting with an opening sequence that borrows from Gone with the Wind, to a scene in which Ron and Patrice discuss their favourite blaxpoitation films. Lee wants us to realise how public attitudes have been shaped by popular images of white supremacy and black rebellion in the movies and the media.

If racism was in retreat in 1980 Lee shows that it never went away, and has now returned in force. This message is emphasised in the most in-your-face manner at the conclusion of the movie, when we are confronted with documentary footage of Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville in 2017, and President Trump making his notorious statement about “both sides” being at fault. It suggests a moral equivalence between racism and anti-racism, and ultimately between good and evil. When this represents a balance of opinions there’s no point in sitting on the fence.

BlacKKKlansman
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Charlie Watchel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, after a book by Ron Stallworth
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Japser Pääkkönen, Topher Grace
USA, rated MA 15+, 135 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 August, 2018