The United States of America – That strange, wonderful experiment of tolerance and liberty built upon stolen land and enslaved people, a paradox of a land with sins deeply rooted into the same ground where greatness has flourished. It’s a place where once shunned immigrants themselves feel nativist, scorning those that came afterwards or dehumanizing those that came unwillingly in the first place, all while erasing the history of those that were here first.
Sometimes this paradox takes on strange forms, as it did in the late 70s when an African undercover officer in Colorado Springs infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan via a clever ruse. Ron Stallworth (played in the film by former football player and son-of-Denzel John David Washington) responded to an advertisement in the paper which led to phone correspondence with local Klansmen. From there, in cooperation with other officers (one of whom naturally had to go in for face-to-face meetings) he managed to subvert many of their activities and curb cross burnings.
Spike Lee, along with writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, make a larger myth and more precise political point out of this narrative, maximizing the impact of the tale by explicitly tying it to both the Trump presidency and recent rise in hate demonstrations at places like Charlottesville. It’s to Lee’s credit that the larger scope of the narrative feels in keeping with the core of the tale thanks to a heightened tone that he’s able to sustain throughout.
Naturally with any film facts get shifted for the sake of narrative, but with such a current environment fully expect the backlash to be swift and fierce, deriding the invented portions of the tale as #fakenews. Thus rests another paradox for the film – by elevating the truth to near mythic levels (not quite to the theatrical extent he did via Aristophanes and Chi-Raq), some of the pure history of the work will be washed away by those pendants insisting on the innacurate Hollywoodization of the tale. Meanwhile, would he to have crafted a non-fiction telling (and Lee is no stranger to the form, producing many exceptional works) the story would hew closer to history but the impact would be far less given the scope of audience.
Thus we’re left with a film that should play to mainstream audience, thanks in part to the team behind Get Out, including Jason Blum and Jordan Peele who serve as producers. Screened as a provocative, polemical call to arms, this is a work that really does serve as a gut punch to the #MAGA crowd, showing them to be foolish, self-destructive and clearly on the wrong side of history. From the opening shot of Gone With The Wind to the incorporation of Birth of A Nation, Lee uses the tenets of non-fiction film against itself, resituating these images in an entirely different context. The film makes explicit the connection between works such and these and the aggrandisement of white supremacist organizations, all while contextualizing the black power movement with all its own messiness, rage and impact.
Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Ryan Eggold make up some of the rest of the ensemble, and there are particularly effective moments involving the iconic Harry Belafonte serving as witness to savagery and speaking in his raspy yet still mighty voice. This is a movie of speeches, which may be no surprise from the maker of Malcolm X, but it’s a credit again that these monologues feel integrated into the work rather than supplemental to the central tale.
As a political act itself Blackkklansman is sure to be divisive, yet it stands as one of the most accomplished and powerful non-fiction films of Lee’s for many years. The man behind Do The Right Thing continues to push at buttons, to poke at the very fabric of American society and ask hard questions to the entire community about the role of police, the nature of resistance, the many paying for the sins of the few, and so on.
Superficially the film feels like a normal undercover cop movie with a bunch of rhetoric laid atop. Beneath that, however, there’s a rage mixed with a sense of pleas for responsibility, the same “wake the fuck up!” that has been at the heart of many of his works. The film has flaws, to be sure, and its genre elements may contribute to audience enjoyment but may dilute the impact of some of the factual elements as they appear to of lesser importance. No matter, for with this film Lee has another way into the general discourse about race in America, using its populist media to speak truth to power. It’s a film that’s both timeless in its seeking of justice and still very much of the moment. Blackkklansman is an excoriating, unapologetic shit on the chest of Trumpians and their nativist agenda, and may well serve as one of the defining films of this era just as Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind did in theirs.