BlacKkKlansman is the true(ish) story of Ron Stallworth (a fantastic John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He talks to the “organization” members (and even David Duke) on the phone, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an excellently understated Adam Driver) goes in person to the meetings. This Spike Lee Joint is a little too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes) but is entertaining and is an odyssey of different genres, moods, and political and social discussions.
BlacKkKlansman has a satiric undercurrent that, I’d argue, is not fully effective. The Klan members in the film here are not simply mocked for their supremacist ideologies. They are also mocked for things like being uneducated, southern, gun-loving, and fat. Things that, while they may describe some Klan members, are not directly tied to being racist. Making the KKK members caricatured and so removed from what we would like to think of ourselves (along with making the heroes more typical of Hollywood standard of beauty), removes white audiences from thinking too hard about whether they have anything in common with these Klan members. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Of course I’m not like that. I’m not racist. I’m not like them.”
This is why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so effective- it asserted that white liberals can be racist (Peele produces here). It uses the language of white people assured of their innocence against them. BlacKkKlansman does not challenge in the same way.
Saying someone is racist or not needs to stop, because that halts productive conversation on race. Anyone is capable of saying racist things, and when a white person is told they are being racist, the response should not be, “I’m not racist so I can’t say racist things.” It should be, “What did I do and how can I stop?” Being so binary is unproductive, and yet it is what this movie deals in (there are some exceptions, like the character of Flip, but it is the overarching tone of the film).
But BlacKkKlansman does not just contain satire; it also contains catharsis. Ron gets the last laugh. He throws his arms around David Duke and mocks him. There are moments throughout the film that are meant to not only say, “we will overcome” to black audiences, but relieve anxious white audience members. Catharsis is a good thing, and film is an excellent medium to provide it. But pairing it with satire is tricky, because satire is supposed to provoke conversation, and catharsis is about ending it, in a way that relieves the pressure of such a conversation and/or oppression to a person or group of people.
There is also the question of who this movie is intended for. It draws a direct comparison between the KKK and Donald Trump.
I am not opposed to politics in film. If you are, don’t see a Spike Lee film about the KKK. But by doing this in an overt way, the film makes less sense in who its intended audience is. The movie sure isn’t going to be watched by a KKK member, unless the trailer really confused them. It will make Trump supporters feel like they are being accused of being aligned with the KKK. It will make a white audience who are assured of their enlightenment feel smug. And I doubt black Americans need a reminder of how white supremacy and the ideals of the KKK, as shown in events like Charlottesville, are so prevalent today.
Making fun of the KKK could be an effective way to strip them of power, but doing it so that what is being made fun of includes attributes unrelated to the psychology of their hate is not effective satire. It may be cathartic, but it does not do what needs to be done, which is have people recognize these attributes in themselves. The more white audiences realize how they believe (whether they mean to or not) in aspects of KKK ideology, and how those ideologies are the foundation of America itself, the more an honest healing process can begin.
But here I have to admit my own prejudice. I’m white. I can talk about wanting nuance and complexity, because while I despise white supremacy and the KKK, I am not directly affected by it. I have never been on the receiving end of such violent, oppressive hate. So I will never be able to empathize fully. I will never be as angry as every black person in America has the right to be.
So while this wasn’t the movie I want, and I still think there are problems, this is Spike Lee’s movie. And he can be as angry as he wants, and can make a movie where the good guys win, black Americans have a victory, and he can call out President Trump as he likes. This movie is his prayer of lament. Of anger. Of despair. Of hope. So in that regard, I think others will find great comfort in this film, and if you watch it with discerning eyes, it should make you uncomfortable. Not just with others, but with yourself.
There is one more thing I must add. The best part of the film, and one of the best scenes of the year, answers the question most white people have probably asked at some point: “why can black people say ‘black power’ but I can’t say ‘white power?’” Near the climax of the film, Lee cuts back and forth between a meeting of the KKK, and a black power meeting. The KKK is about looking backward, mythologizing and endorsing the violence of the past, and glorifying white-led oppression. It’s about securing lies about the white race. The black power meeting is about remembering the truth, and learning how to move forward. One is about honesty, the other is not. And Lee does challenge some of the black power movement’s more radical ideas, but in this case, it is clear that white power and black power do not share the same meaning, just for different races. The ability to say this, without words, through the narrative of the movie, is one of the best uses of cinema I have seen.
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