By Jason Parham
Spike Lee’s white-hot genre mash-up BlacKkKlansman initiates its course in the early 1970s. It’s a time â€œmarked by the spread of integration and miscegenation,â€� according to an unnamed race theorist in the opening sequence (heâ€™s played with palpable animosity by Alec Baldwin). In Colorado Springs, he continues, a sect of â€œtrue, white Americansâ€� sense a movement brewing among black â€œradicalsâ€� and Jews who they feel have â€œpressured their great way of life.â€� The proto-MAGA sentiment is but a backdrop, one of many ways Lee’s latest joint teases out the resonances between then and now. The parallels aren’t simply the work of a fabulist, though; the playfully urgent film is inspired by real eventsâ€”as Lee styles it, â€œsome foâ€™ real, foâ€™ real shitâ€�.
Elsewhere in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is at a crossroads. The first black officer on the Colorado Springs Police Force, he’s overcome the department’s internal racism to attain the rank of a detective, but an assignment has left him with mixed allegiances, torn between his work and the world. Itâ€™s not until he comes across an ad in the paper from the Ku Klux Klan that it all clicksâ€”call them, and pretend to be white.
With a jazzmanâ€™s knack for grandiosity, one thatâ€™s more Charlie Parker bebop than Miles Davis cool, Lee understands tone better than most filmmakers of his generation. Over his career, he has found ways to bring sound and color into symmetry as well as discord, and to derive power from both. Heâ€™s got an appetite for climax, and has matured into a shameless, incessant provocateurâ€”a skill that has anchored some his best works, from Do the Right Thing to Malcolm X to When The Levees Broke, his 2006 documentary about the havoc Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans. Produced by Jordan Peele, who first brought the concept to Lee, BlacKkKlansman is similarly ambitious and gripping for how it illustrates its core statement: revealing just how identity is weaponized for and against us.
David Lee/Focus Features
Over time, Ron learns that KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, with a perfectly tuned aww-shucks innocence) wants to â€œsell hateâ€� and cleanse the nation under issues of affirmative action, immigration, and black radicalism. In one of their earliest conversations, Duke praises Ron for speaking â€œthe Kingâ€™s Englishâ€� and not â€œjive.â€� The beauty here is the distance, or lack thereof, between Ronâ€™s over-the-phone voice versus his in-person voice. Unlike the broadness of Sorry to Bother Youâ€™s â€œwhite voiceâ€� play, Stallworthâ€™s two tongues donâ€™t clash as much as someone like Duke expects. Itâ€™s a critique made all the more searing by Washingtonâ€™s subtletyâ€”the notion of â€œyouâ€™re so articulateâ€� is turned on its head and ground into ash. For Washingtonâ€™s Ron Stallworth, itâ€™s not a matter of code-switching, but one of ownership: the Kingâ€™s English is his too.
But a voice canâ€™t infiltrate the KKK without a body, and proxy comes by way of Stallworth’s veteran colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who begins to attend Klan meetings as Stallworth. The problem is, Zimmerman is Jewish, which one member begins to suspect. While Flip wasnâ€™t raised in a devout household and doesnâ€™t practice Judaism, the mounting threat has brought his Jewishness front of mind. â€œI never thought about it before,â€� he confesses to Ron, but now â€œIâ€™m thinking about it all the time.â€� Lee is a master puppeteer when it comes to having his characters engage the battleground of selfhoodâ€”how they are sharpened by it, trapped by it, made new by it.
â€œInfiltrate Hateâ€� is the filmâ€™s tagline, and it bears the same deceptive fragrance of 2018: a time of history-rattling infringements against the powerless. Politically, the film works to map the trajectory to our current predicament. Donald Trump. Charlottesville. The spread of poisonous racial dogmas masked in slogans like â€œAmerica First.â€� The film is largely about the influence, and infection, of propaganda into the American center, underlying how charlatan, racist figures commandeer authority with a serpentâ€™s fang. Footage from D.W. Griffithâ€™s 1915 feature Birth of a Nation pulse throughout the two-hour flick, and the friction of Leeâ€™s message against Griffithâ€™s culminates into a movie of dense and difficult candor. As a trio of Klan members set out to bomb local Black Student Union members, the film crackles and scintillates, and only briefly sputtersâ€”but never once does it lose the fire of its drive.
With heat and purpose, BlacKkKlansman manifests as Leeâ€™s most triumphant feature since 2006â€™s Inside Man. It doesn’t just pack the visual audacity of a modern Blaxploitation epic, butâ€”with Leeâ€™s tongue-slick message of overthrowing The Manâ€”the framework as well. The film moves with patience until, just as youâ€™ve settled into Coloradoâ€™s cinematic landscape, catapults to a climactic end. Footage from 2017â€™s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia occupy the filmâ€™s closing scenes (itâ€™s no coincidence that Lee is releasing the movie on its anniversary). Sitting in the theater, I again found myself struck by the horror of the images. And in this, a film about propaganda becomes a piece of potent propaganda itself. Itâ€™s up to you which message you choose to hear.
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