The President of the United States is a racist. His ascent into the world of politics was rooted in his racist conspiracy theory about the first black President of the United States. As a candidate, he frequently employed racist rhetoric, stirring up a hatred that never went away but was pushed to the fringes of society. His use of racial hatred was so strong and overwhelming that many voted for him despite the fact that he broadcast loud and clear that he was fundamentally unqualified for the job. Whenever the current president facing scrutiny for his litany of scandals, he reaches down into that dark well of hatred to rile up his base, as he did just recently with LeBron James. This isn’t anything new. It’s just another chapter in America’s shameful history of racism. With his latest film BlacKkKlansman, the true story of a black undercover cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70s, Spike Lee doesn’t draw upon the past for parallels to today’s horror show. Instead, Spike Lee draws a straight line between the hate of yesterday and the hate of today.
The very first shot in BlacKkKlansman is from another movie. Spike Lee opens his film with the legendary crane shot from Gone With the Wind, the camera pulling back and showing an epic amount of wounded men before pulling all the way back and revealing a tattered Confederate flag. This won’t be the only time the 1939 classic is referenced in BlacKkKlansman, and Lee will use another infamous classic film of white supremacy in the film. (More on that later.) It’s in these opening scenes that feature Gone with the Wind and Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a by-the-numbers white supremacist that spouts racist and anti-Semitic vitriol while filming a hateful PSA, that establishes loud and clear that BlacKkKlansman isn’t about a single group of white supremacists. It’s about a culture of white supremacy.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hired as the first black officer in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department. Taking on this job means that Stallworth must become the “Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Department,” meaning that any discrimination must be met by turning the other cheek. After a brief, tedious stop in the records department, Stallworth is assigned by Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to the intelligence division working with veterans Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Stallworth’s first assignment is to infiltrate and report on a speech given by the former Black Panther and civil rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). At the event held by the Black Student Union, Stallworth meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and quickly takes a liking to the young activist.
Meeting Patrice for a drink after the speech, Ron Stallworth must confront the fact that his first undercover assignment was using his blackness to further perpetuate an inequitable status quo as she tells him about being pulled over and harassed by local police. This is immediately followed by an upbeat sequence that has a current of tragedy underneath as Patrice and Ron dance, the young woman basically required to just accept what happened and quickly move on.
Back at work, Ron notices an advertisement in the local paper for a new chapter of the KKK. He calls the number posing as a racist white man and quickly gains the trust of chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). However, Stallworth has made a rookie mistake and used his real name. For the face-to-face meeting, Stallworth must convince Flip Zimmerman, who is of Jewish decent, to be his white stand-in. Stallworth and Zimmerman in their two roles as one man quickly infilitrate the Klan. Zimmerman is constantly hounded by the paranoid and violent Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who seems always on the verge of lashing out. In order to get further into the clandestine organization, Ron Stallworth will need membership in the KKK, and is able to secure an expedited membership by chatting up the Grand Wizard of the Klan, David Duke (Topher Grace). The famed bigot has numerous telephone conversations with Stallworth and plans to travel to Colorado Springs for his initiation ceremony. But the local KKK is brewing something big and hopefully Ron Stallworth and Flip Zimmerman can piece it all together before it’s too late.
As much as BlacKkKlansman is about the past, the screenplay credited to Spike Lee and his frequent collaborator Kevin Willmont along with the duo of Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz bring the horrific hatred into the modern era. The racist language of the current president is placed on the lips of David Duke and his acolytes of hate. There’s no subtlety here. It’s explicit for a purpose. “America first,” David Duke proudly declares at one point in the film just in case anyone missed the obvious. With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee says with authority that the hatred unleashed by the current president isn’t anything new – it’s just dressed slightly differently.
One of the more interesting aspects of BlacKkKlansman is the way that Spike Lee uses cinematic history as a backdrop to the film’s story. The choice to use that famous shot from Gone With the Wind, a shot that isn’t too dissimilar from many of Spike’s own crane shots, is a stark reminder that Confederate monuments don’t just exist in the Deep South, but in the very art form that we all love. The Oscar-winning performance by Hattie McDaniel is used as an example later in the film by Duke as an example of him not hating black people, as if that decades old award assuages cinema of its past bigotry. Later, during the initiation ceremony, the members of Klan gleefully watch D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, reveling in the racist imagery from the silent classic. As the members of the Klan cheer on Griffith’s infamous epic, the film cuts to Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recalling a mob whipped up into a bloodlust by Birth of a Nation and the brutal lynching that he witnessed. It’s obvious that Spike isn’t just asking the audience to reexamine racism in America, but how the classics of cinema have perpetuated a culture of white supremacy, be it Griffith’s love letter to the Klan or Gone With the Wind’s romanticism of the Antebellum South.
BlacKkKlansman is a call to action from Spike Lee. It’s a movie that weaves between so many different tones – horror, humor, romance, and tragedy. The film does run into some pacing issues as it’s just trying to tackle so many topics with righteous fury, but it never loses track of itself for too long. This is a movie set in the past about today. The reality is that there’s nothing that a racist hates more than being called a racist, and consistent complaining about this has led to an easing of language in describing racial hatred – you know, “economic anxiety.” BlacKkKlansman says with conviction that is bullshit. The hate of yesterday is no different than the hate of today. To call it anything different is to further aid and abet an insidious culture of white supremacy. We can make a difference. All we have to do is act. Sometimes that means taking to the streets. Other times it means not mincing words. When a person in a position of power continues to engage in racist behavior, you must call them what they are – a racist. So say it with me now: The President of the United States is a racist.
With a wild story from the past, Spike Lee looks directly at the modern political nightmare with BlacKkKlansman, recounting the story of a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK, but the film also tackles how a broader culture of white supremacy survives through various means.