BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman ★★★★

"I've got a friend, he keeps up with these groups. He says they're moving away from the old violent racist styles. That's what Duke is peddling now. It's become mainstream."
"Duke?"
"David Duke, current Grand Wizard of the Klan, but, he's always in a three-piece suit. He's never seen in a hood or a robe in public. And he now goes by National Director. So, he's clearly got his sights on higher office."
"Politics? How so?"
"I think it's another way to sell hate. Think about it: affirmative action, immigration, crime, tax reform. He says no one wants to be called a bigot anymore. Because Archie Bunker made that too uncool. So the idea is under all these issues, everyday Americans can accept it, support it, until eventually, one day, you get somebody in the White House that embodies it."
"Uh, sorry. Come on. America would never elect somebody like David Duke, President of the United States of America."
"Coming from a Black man, that's pretty naive. Why don't you wake up?"

Knowing that Harry Belafonte has a brief but important appearance in BlacKkKlansman and wanting to pay tribute to him on his 94th birthday, it felt right to watch Spike Lee's engaging period piece about a Black undercover detective who infiltrates a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with assistance from a white, Jewish fellow cop. The film also provided my official introduction to John David Washington, which is only fitting since I spent February digging through the films of his dad Denzel.

Inspired by a real police officer's career, the younger Mr. Washington portrays Ron Stallworth, the first Black man to join the force in Colorado Springs, CO. Although the film compresses the timeline by vaguely setting it sometime in the 70s - in actuality, Stallworth was a rookie in 1972 and began his undercover assignment with the KKK in 1979 - the narrative that Lee presents is extremely compelling, following Stallworth and his white surrogate for in-person encounters with Klansmen, "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver), with genuine tension and high stakes. At the time of the film's release, fellow director Boots Riley wrote a series of Tweets criticizing the film for offering "a made-up story" that lionizes its protagonist while obscuring the reality of Stallworth's activity with the FBI's COINTELPRO unit; accurate as this take may be, it's also fair to say that the tale Lee tells is captivating and thought-provoking, so viewed purely from the perspectives of filmmaking ability and audience enrichment, BlacKkKlansman is still tremendously potent. I also think it's true that just about every cinematic interpretation of historical events plays fast and loose with the facts, so while I can't begrudge any viewer choosing to hold Lee accountable for certain dramatizations, I also choose not to let those claims take away from my personal experience of entertainment, intellectual stimulation and emotional impact.

Lee's film is also of especial interest to me in the context of having recently seen Mo' Better Blues, which drew controversy in 1990 for its blatantly anti-Semitic characters. I don't know if BlacKkKlansman's emphasis on the Ku Klux Klan's hatred of both Black and Jewish people should necessarily be described as an apology or a corrective, but speaking as a Jewish viewer, I found myself particularly drawn to the ways in which Lee and fellow screenwriters David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott refused to shy away from the KKK's anti-Semitism. I pondered this as Harry Belafonte, who is himself part-Jewish, spoke with such pain about The Birth of a Nation and the horror of lynching in his scenes as (fictional) civil rights activist Jerome Turner near the end, and again as Lee closed the film with footage of the neo-Nazi white supremacists causing death and destruction in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. The power that Lee has a filmmaker is in using his works to underline sociopolitical issues with brutal effectiveness; you can argue that his approach may not be subtle, but it almost always gets the point across and will surely continue to do so with his next project.

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