Set in the early 1970s, post-Civil Rights movement, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective to work in the Colorado Springs police department. Yet, as a rookie, he sways his chief to let him work undercover. He soon takes the initiative of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan to expose them as a violent threat, communicating with them on the phone and even belaboring a pretend hatred of black people. He utilizes his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), to be the white face of Ron Stallworth when meeting the Klan in person.
As the audience, we watch this elaborate lie unfold as realistically as possible. We see both Ron and Flip’s trajectory as they navigate through their own personal emotions dealing with what they’re trying to do.
Aside from going undercover with the KKK, Ron is also assigned the task of infiltrating a local rally where civil rights leader Kwame Ture is giving a speech. Ron’s boss is worried that Ture is rabble rousing black people to take violent action against law enforcement.
Director Spike Lee does something interesting by pointing out that both Ture’s Black Power movement and the Klan claim to exist under the pretense of a support system for those with strong beliefs–although very much opposed. Lee knows what he’s doing. He actually draws parallels between the two movements and points to outliers in each one who give their respective organizations a bad rap. Much like some members of the Klan promote hateful violence against blacks and Jews, Ture is preaching cop killing and the same sort of generalization towards whites as the white racists do towards blacks. Flip insists that it’s all-talk on both accounts, but others in the department feel strongly otherwise towards either side.
Obviously, the audience already knows that Ture’s followers are merely on the defensive. A response to people like the Klan or racist cops, and are trying to institute a sense of dominance that those parties try to establish on them. Their hate has only been catalyzed by the hate against them first.
Lee tells the whole story with slight levity and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Though the comedy never undermines the task at hand, and helps with the fantastic job of proving a point without resorting to dramatization.
Lee doesn’t need to utilize any self-indulgent auteuristic symbolism to squeeze every last ounce of depth out of the story and its characters. Instead, he lets the complexities show through organically. Most of it is intangible, similarly to how we can’t usually put our best friends and family members under an umbrella, these characters can’t be contained by archetypes or even stereotypes. Even those in the antagonistic Klan have nuanced motives.
This alone makes BlacKkKlansman a mesmerizing movie. I was thoroughly enjoying–even loving–the movie. I was ready to list it as my favorite of the year up until the point I thought the credits were about to roll. It’s at that point where Spike Lee makes a mistake. He brings in modern current events–documentary footage of the riots that broke out in Charlottesville in 2017. These images are polarizing, sure, but they don’t belong in the movie at all. I’m not saying this because I disagree with him, but because it’s not necessary to show.
I see what he’s doing very clearly. And that might be why it’s so sinful. He’s conveying that these racist notions taking place in the ’70s are not just dramatized for the screen, but real life parallels of what’s happening right now in our country. That the Klan is still around. However, if someone is watching this movie, they are clearly already aware of that. If not, they at least know that race-inspired hatred still exists. And they definitely remember the Charlottesville incidents that happened a mere year or two ago.
And by chance, if someone is on the fence, this film may have provided an impactful subliminal message for them. An impactful message that could easily be derailed following images of a still-divisive situation. After seeing the documentary footage at the end, those on the fence may come back down. Isn’t the point of the film to admonish hatred and bring people to that side? Even the lighter tone of the film is on board with that notion.
Showing the clips also undermines the ironic message of the film that hatred exists on both sides, albeit at different levels. It was never felt while watching the movie that the KKK’s actions were not worse than those of Ture’s followers. The Klan were clearly the aggressors. We already see this.
Great writing says its point without actually saying it. The movie had integrity, but you never felt robbed of the truth or that the events were tailored to prove a point. You never felt like the filmmaker had a bias and you never felt like you were told what to believe. That is, until the very end.
Like a comedian having to explain the joke after telling it, Spike Lee apparently felt like he needed to punctuate the movie in order to exclaim what his point was. But I ask you, then what was the point of watching the movie in the first place?