Spike Lee is an incredibly intelligent and perceptive director so he probably knew what he was doing. However, when I see Alec Baldwin playing a virulent racist, spewing out slurs, there’s this odd contradiction. Somehow it loses its import if that is what it was meant to have. Because I know the man behind the mask is an avowed progressive. However, this dissonance, thanks to the extratextual association, might be equally compelling for different reasons.
Our actual narrative is based on a true story, albeit delivered in Spike Lee’s own definitive way. We open at Colorado Springs Police Department. Confident and ambitious Ron Stalworth (John David Washington), with a fly Afro, is looking to make a name for himself as a detective. Even in a place like Colorado, it’s a fairly big deal as they’ve never had another African-American police officer.
He will be the precincts Jackie Robinson, and he doesn’t bear the responsibility lightly. Still, he has the youthful entergy to take to the opportunity quickly. For one thing, he’s not looking to be stuck behind the records counter his entire life. He wants action.
His first taste — and his first real assignment — is infiltrating the rally held at the local college for Kwame Ture in order to keep tabs on local “subversives.” These are the days of Angela Davis, mobilization of university movements, and certainly The Black Panther Party. As such, it places Stallworth at a consequential crossroads of history. He plays peacekeeper on the side of law and order, while also looking to change the world from the inside for his “Brothers” who are rebelling against “The Man.”
It strikes me that the conservatives look at something like this with fear. Nixon catalyzed this very same silent majority with his exhortations. But both sides aren’t altogether different — at least how Lee manages to capture them. It feels like Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and other ardent activists, with all their yelling and the raising of their hands in black power salutes, ultimately comes out of a place of restlessness, even helplessness.
Because out on the freeway, they get pulled over, berated, and harassed in the most denigrating of ways. Where whites are given unchecked authority over blacks and thusly abuse their power and the frameworks of society. This is what Ron Stallworth is at war with.
Lee composes the scene in such a telling manner. Because it opens with a song — one I know well and love for its cool vocality — and it’s set against the soft hues of a California panorama only to quickly evolve into the roadside confrontation between white cops and black citizens. Once more the director is working in formalistic contrasts that only help to deepen the disparate ties of his story.
However, he’s also a consummate world builder and not merely in creating a fantastical space, but also by taking us back somewhere we feel like we formerly knew. Looking Glass’s “Brandy” underscores another scene where Ron and Patrice are having dinner together, continuing the vibes, and for me personally, helping to accentuate this sense we are being transported into the ’70s.
All this lays the groundwork for what is at the core of Blackklansman. This is the next phase: infiltration of a different sort. Ron Stallworth will get inside the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, there are a few logistical barriers. Namely, the fact he is very much a black man. It’s an easy enough solution.
He builds up a rapport with none other than the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone using his “white voice,” while one of his Caucasian colleagues (Adam Driver) plays a version of him in person.
Again, the wink-wink parallels between Donald Trump and David Duke are put right there in case anyone should absent-mindedly miss them. Duke too wants to make America great again. It is what it is.
Still, one of the film’s best dynamics is built between the trio of Washington, Driver, and Steve Buscemi because, in spite of their differences, it helps them drum up an electric camaraderie. Aided by Zimmerman (Driver), Ron goes deeper, gaining the confidence of the white supremacists’ gradually, even as incessantly mistrusting types like Felix (Jasper Paakonen) always seems to be testing not only his loyalty but his mettle. It has the seeds of tense drama.
Certainly compared to the timeless visceral nature of Do The Right Thing as a human, social, and political indictment, Blackkklansman is no match. But despite his reputation and political bent, Spike Lee does ponder the dichotomy here as well. You have those striving for militant black power. You have those trying to hold onto the egregious relics of white supremacy. There are the complacent who see the bigotry and fail to do anything about it, even within law enforcement.
Ron is easy to gravitate toward as a hero because he is an African-American man looking to revitalize the police force and their often tarnished reputation. But thanks to Washington, he’s a genuinely charismatic, mostly not-threatening lead. Meanwhile, Duke embodies the ideas of white supremacism going mainstream and somehow becoming palatable, which is a far scarier thought.
But this is equally a story about identity. How we as human beings can be so blinded and narrow-minded. We are a people devoted to rituals and heritage — the way things have been. Where passing as white is seen as a superior outcome and many of us, no matter our background, are juggling identities. For instance, how do you reconcile being African-American and a police officer? It’s just one of the many questions.
One of Lee’s other evocative exhibitions in crosscutting starts with Harry Belafonte as an old man recounting the horrible lynching of his youth to a rapt audience of mortified onlookers. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the KKK assembly where David Duke makes his grand entrance to install “Ron” as a Klansman.
It’s a visual clash once again between White Power and Black Power. As a caveat, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a movie I have avoided for so long out of sheer apprehension. Not that I would succumb to it, but rather that it would repulse me. Not because I’m some enlightened being; it might actually force me to contend with complicated history. Because Nation as well as Gone with The Wind reflect how cinema itself is so firmly enmeshed with the ignominious prejudices of our nation.
And as such a powerful medium, it can be used to propagate and promote all sorts of messages. I’m not naive enough to believe Spike Lee is the universal soothsayer, and yet I appreciate how he’s willing to confront the issues that run generations deep in the very medium he calls his own.
My mind instead drifts to the very poignant and purposeful inclusion of Belafonte. Here was a man who acted as a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Here is the man who fought tirelessly for greater, more complex representation for African Americans in movies along with compatriots like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
Here is a man at the center of a controversy in the 1960s because, Petula Clark, a white woman caught up in the raptures of their duet, touched his arm on live television. What an unfathomable world we live in. Again, we must question: how can this be?
It galls me there could be people who equate Christianity and “Men of God” to purely a white faith. However, it’s imperative to differentiate that the themes are not solely about holding white people accountable for past sins but actually ousting evil for what it is, then and now. It’s so easy for early-onset complacency to set in. The film’s line in the sand between the then and now isn’t exactly perfect, even as the presence of the real David Duke in the present bids us to take heed and consider soberly.
Blackkklansman is the kind of film you have to consider in light of all the many hallmarks we can laud Spike Lee for. It’s dynamic, boasting its share of humor; at times it’s brutal and trenchant in all manner of ways, slicing and dicing through its material to present us a singular vision and with that an ensuing message.
The story itself makes a brilliant punchline. Imagine. A black cop infiltrating the KKK! The final images are all but a living nightmare. What makes the film is the continuously startling juxtaposition on display. This is what Lee offers us.The heavy lifting must be done by the audience, working to reconcile and wrestle with the space in-between.