“Why are you acting like you don’t have skin in the game?
The first thing we see in Spike Lee’s newest film BlacKkKlansman is a scene from Gone with the Wind. In the scene, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) walks through a sea of dead Confederate soldiers following the Battle of Atlanta, ignoring the war and death around her because she’s in search of someone important to her and her only. The scene in question features one of the most famous crane shots in film history, sweeping through this endless parade of suffering until finally ending on a sun baked shot of the Confederate flag as it flies proudly above the town. The tragedy of the scene does not come from the deaths of the soldiers themselves. It comes from the fact they died for a cause not worth fighting for in the first place. Gone with the Wind is one of the most recognizable films in Hollywood history; its presence looms large on every iteration of both AFI’s Top 100 and Turner Classic Movies’ programming schedule. What gets lost in its popularity and acclaim is its incredibly problematic portrayal of African Americans and slavery as a whole, romanticizing an era in American history that was actually a stain on the country we will never fully get out. Every black character is completely subservient to the white characters, embodying every racial stereotype known to man, including Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), the joyful slave who just loves working at O’Hara’s plantation. It’s a film built around bullshit. At the time of Gone with the Wind’s release, it was the only movie that mattered and audiences flocked to theaters to get brainwashed by an epic, melodramatic love story taking place during the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the kind of brain washing that has had a disastrous impact on future generations. But, Lee doesn’t want us to forget about a little film that came before it. A little film widely regarded, and rightfully so, as the most racist film ever made. That little film is none other than D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that comes up many of times throughout BlacKkKlansman. Images from Griffith’s film are cast over the face of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a “scientist” who stands in front of a projector and spouts off racist vitriol about how the United States is turning into a “mongrel nation” after integration forced white people to co-exist and mingle with those considered to be “inferior” to the master race. He blows every racist dog whistle possible within a span of minutes, despite being so utterly incompetent in reading and reciting cue cards written out for him that he flubs practically every other line. Beauregard is played by Alec Baldwin who has somehow become more famous for playing a bigot on television than any other performance he’s given throughout his long, prolific career. Why does Spike Lee open BlacKkKlansman with imagery from both Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation before we are even introduced to our protagonist? It has to do with how these two films are studied. As a film student, whenever these films were talked about at length, especially The Birth of a Nation, their racist content was not discussed at length. Because both films were incredibly groundbreaking at the time of their release, you were conditioned to discuss form over content. Black people were being portrayed as inhumane animals on screen, but look at how Victor Fleming pulled off this elegant crane shot in Gone with the Wind. Look at all its bright, beautiful Technicolor photography. The Birth of a Nation helped legitimize the Klan but look at how D.W. Griffith’s innovative use of close-ups in and how he makes you feel the scale of his production through the use of the wide shot. Sure, it’s all racist propaganda but look at how good it all looks. You’re mostly told to ignore the message on screen in order to effectively study how the message is being presented to you. The opening moments of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman are about the power cinema has as a vessel for indoctrination.
We’re introduced to Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) moments before he enters the Colorado Springs Police Department to apply for a job as a police officer. He sees “Minorities Encouraged to Apply” on the sign that prominently hangs outside the department and decides to give it a go, but once he sits down to interview with Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and Mr. Turrentine (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), it becomes clear to him he’s walking into the lion’s den. In fact, during the interview, he is referred to as the Jackie Robinson for all Colorado police departments, and like Jackie, he’ll be subjected to racial mockery by not only his fellow co-workers, but the people he’s been sworn to protect. He’s hired and immediately goes to work in the department’s records office, a position that allows racist officers to treat Stallworth like the help and call him “toad” and other racial epithets. One officer in particular, Landers (Frederick Weller), is extremely racist and unfit to be a police officer, a fact his co-workers know to be true, but they don’t feel the need to do anything about it because the department is like a family. Stallworth wants to do undercover work, begging Chief Bridges to get him out of the records room because he feels he’s being wasted there. After some hesitation, Bridges gives him an undercover assignment, but it’s only because the assignment requires a black person to successfully pull off. The assignment in question involves an upcoming Black Power rally hosted by a local university’s black student union and headlined by the Black Panther formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael, now named Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), like all Black Panthers at the time, is seen as some radical figure by the FBI and local authorities whose words might help stoke a race war the country might never recover from. They all feel like their lives could be in danger because Ture’s words might lead to violence towards police officers. So, Bridges sends Stallworth undercover to attend the rally and get intel about their potentially nefarious plans. At the rally, Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), an Angela Davis-like figure who makes Stallworth question his identity as a black person, constantly asking him whether he is down with the black liberation movement. Stallworth himself doesn’t even know what he stands for and he realizes that as a captive audience member during Ture’s passionate speech. During the speech, the film cuts back and forth between Ture, his loyal audience and Stallworth. The audience is captured by Lee in a dreamlike fashion as they are being enchanted by Ture while Stallworth’s inner turmoil keeps him grounded in reality and unable to transcend to a higher plane. Stallworth’s choosing to become a police officer makes him look like a traitor to his own people as it means he is willingly assimilating into a predominantly white culture. He served in Vietnam, a war started under false pretenses that lead to the massacre of millions of innocent minorities. His voice is nasally, providing a stark contrast to his large afro and stylish wardrobe. He sounds like a black person doing a white person voice, which comes in handy later on in his conversations with various members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Stallworth’s plan to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan is based around the fact Klan members are incredibly, incredibly stupid people. Stallworth sees an ad in the local paper recruiting people to join the Klan and calls the number provided and proceeds to go on a lengthy rant about his hatred of blacks, Jews and anybody else who the Klan finds undesirable while doing an extremely exaggerated version of his already nasally voice. The only problem is he gives his own name, which means he needs one of his white co-workers to masquerade as him in personal meetings with these Klan members. This is where Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) comes in. Zimmerman is a relatively decent guy who tries to maintain a sense of professionalism, even though he laments the fact Stallworth is able to lead an investigation of this scope while still being a rookie. He also isn’t a fan of the investigation because he doesn’t see the need to put himself in danger in order to stop a group of guys from playing dress-up. Zimmerman being the guy who pretends to be Stallworth is an interesting choice because Zimmerman is a Jewish man and the Ku Klux Klan absolutely hates Jews. In early interactions with the Klan, Zimmerman is constantly accused of being Jewish by hot headed member Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) who, in one scene, makes Zimmerman take a “Jew lie detector test”. He asks Zip about his penis and wants him to take it out so he can see if it is circumcised, but he can’t even pronounce circumcised correctly. The Ku Klux Klan in BlacKkKlansman is obsessed with secrecy. In fact, they don’t even like being referred to as the Klan. They are “The Organization”. They are proud of their racism but they aren’t proud enough to be fully open about it, constantly acting as if they are some top secret intelligence agency like the CIA. They have an application you have to fill out and various fees you have to pay just to have the right to get a membership card and attend a cross burning. The problem they run into when attempting to maintain a tight knit outfit is that they are idiots and BlacKkKlansman wants us to realize just how stupid people like this are. Zimmerman, without jeopardizing his cover, toys with these Klan members a little bit, especially Felix and Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) who, when forced to justify their beliefs, they stutter and flub their way through ideas they heard from people like Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) and others who are proud of their lack of education. When you don’t know anything about history, it’s easy to say white people are under attack in America. To these guys, reading is not something you admit to actually doing. Stallworth manages to get into contact with Duke personally in order to secure his membership card earlier than expected and Duke is proud of the fact he can tell the difference between white and black people based on how they pronounce certain words. His specific example involves what he believes to be is black people’s exaggeration of words than end with –r like are. It’s the kind of stupidity that makes Stallworth cover the phone and hold it away from him just so he can laugh at Duke. It’s easy to have an organization full of idiots when the head honcho is as dumb as those serving under him. Their core beliefs come directly from The Birth of a Nation, which is shown later in the film as Duke, his disciples and their wives watch it, cheering on the Klan as they violently eradicate the “savage” dark skinned people on screen. They scream and throw popcorn at the screen like they have front row seats at the Roman Coliseum. They look like a bunch of losers.
Throughout BlacKkKlansman, Lee delicately mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with sheer terror. We laugh at how incredibly stupid the Klan is, but we’re also terrified because their idiocy is the only thing stopping their successful attempts at domestic terrorism. The big plan of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan involves their attempt to bomb an upcoming rally hosted by Patrice and the black student union, but the plan falls apart due to a comical amount of incompetence brought on by the group’s decision to put the hands of their dangerous plan in the hands of Felix’s cheery, skittish wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who can’t even do something as simple as plant a bomb, walk away and turn a dial. These guys think they are a lot smarter than they are, calmly moving onto a Plan B when A fails even though Plan B is remarkably more stupid than the one that came before it. Not being able to fit C4 in a mailbox foils the entire operation. Even earlier attempts at staging a cross burning fail. Their delusions of grandeur lead to them being unable to do anything but hang out together and shoot big guns at targets that look like running black people. They’re preparing for a war they are too stupid to start. The only reason why they get duped by Ron and Flip in the first place is due to their inability to distinguish their voices from one another. It’s like the citizens of Metropolis being unable to tell that Clark Kent is actually Superman because Kent wears glasses during his shift at the Daily Planet. They are initially suspicious but back off once given an illogical explanation by Flip. While we laugh at the Klan and their stupidity, we are aware they still exist today and are even more widespread than we think. Believing what the Klan believes makes you an idiot who should be shunned by all members of society, but unfortunately, the idiocy hasn’t died. It’s only regenerated.
The last images we see in BlacKkKlansman are that of a cross burning which then transitions to real-life footage of the events of Charlottesville that took place just a year ago. We go from the Klan burning crosses to neo-Nazi’s carrying torches shouting “Jews will not replace us!” as they march through the campuses of the University of Virginia. We all know what happened next. The brave UVA students and other Charlottesville citizens decided to fight back against the Nazi’s, leading to a violent confrontation in the streets of Charlottesville, eventually leading to the murder of Heather Hayer after a car drove full-speed through a crowd of protestors. We also see footage of our president refusing to denounce the neo-Nazi’s and David Duke, who gave a pep talk to the Nazi’s before they violently marched through the streets. There’s a scene in the middle of BlacKkKlansman where Stallworth dismisses the idea of the United States electing someone like David Duke president, a clear dig at the election of Donald Trump. It feels like a real kick in the balls because this is our horrifying reality. When the film premiered at Cannes, one of the first questions Spike Lee got at his post-screening press conference involved his decision to include the Charlottesville footage and Hayer’s murder, a decision which will prove to be controversial once a wide audience sees the film. The events at Charlottesville took place after filming had ended on BlacKkKlansman, and once Spike saw the footage on CNN, he said he realized it was his obligation to make what happened at Charlottesville serve as a visual coda for the film because it perfectly sums up what the film is about. He laid into Trump without saying his name, ridiculing him for sympathizing with racists and failing to be a real leader in the face of this kind of domestic terrorism. As a result of Trump’s continued embracing of white nationalism, not only has it given the alt-right here in America the green light to continue to violently spread their hatred, but it has given the green light to other alt-right factions across the world to do the same. Lee is often portrayed by his detractors as someone who is constantly trying to stoke racial fires but he’s only bringing to light what has always existed in this country. He gets called racist by those who are actually racist. He gets dismissed as nothing but a provocateur by those who are uncomfortable with being provoked. The power of Spike Lee as a filmmaker comes from his willingness to confront racial injustice and being unconcerned with what people think of him as a person. He knows he is on the right side of history and will be judged accordingly. You can call him too overt with his message all you want. Right now, we actually have a real-life Nazi in the White House. Who honestly cares about subtlety at this point? He is just ringing the alarm loud enough so everybody can hear. Ever since Trump was elected president, there have been questions as to how artists are supposed to respond to the dangerous times we live in. How are artists supposed to make art when racism has become mainstream again and fascism is slowly becoming our new reality? With BlacKkKlansman, we have gotten our first big cinematic fuck you to the Trump White House and all its supporters and it is only right that Spike Lee be the artist who screams it.