Spike Lee brings to the forefront a crisis going on in our present day world since Trump became president with the film BlacKkKlansman. It is something you can feel is brewing and it bubbles over much later in the film.
Lee is known for tipping us off with opening credits, and in BlacKkKlansman he begins with a clip from a tragic scene in Gone with the Wind as Scarlet O'Hara runs through the dirt and railroad tracks surrounded by thousands of the wounded civil war soldiers.
The camera pulls away and the film cuts to a b/w 8mm, racist-laden, PSA with a pro-segregationist, a Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, dramatically portrayed by Alec Baldwin. He seems to be rehearsing a voiceover for this film with repeated false starts. Lee distinctly has Baldwin facing the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and showing Beauregard's character flaws. Also, we're seeing a side of racism against what is now thought of as revolutionary: the Little Rock Nine. Our lesson in this moment is to remind us about the struggle of desegregation of blacks and whites in schools; a short history lesson of what occurred three years following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that stated separate public schools for blacks and whites is unconstitutional.
Next the story arrives in Colorado Springs, CO, which is actually filmed on location in Ossining NY. The story takes place in the early 1970s, but the book from which this movie is based was about events that took place in 1979. In one scene there is a "elect Richard Nixon" poster, therefore moving this timeline back about 7 years. This is, perhaps, Lee's choice to connect the KKK to Nixon's 1968 and 1972 campaigns, mainly reminding us of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" for supporting States' Rights, and that the Republican party continued to use this strategy through the last presidential election. (Read further about the strategy.)
The story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) begins with his job interview for the Colorado Springs Police Dept. While he is working in the records room, he meets a fellow cop that calls him a racist derogatory term. The harassment from this cop is an angle that adds to the tension whenever he cop reappears in the film.
Eventually Stallworth is recruited into the undercover detective work and is asked to attend a Black Panther meeting at a local college. He meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. She is created by Spike Lee to represent the black women of the black power movement. The speaker at the student union is Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Toure, who created the phrase Black Power. Stallworth finds himself in a crowd chanting along for empowerment. In this scene, director Spike Lee gives several of the students in the audience close ups under spotlight -- distinctly three at a time framing just their head and shoulders --while Carmichael tells them that they're beautiful. Dumas meets later on with Stallworth and she questions his role in being there, asking in a less-than-welcoming way if he's the police. She is skeptical; the police's reputation is to shoot innocent black people.
Lee uses opportunities in all of his films to create positive moments within black culture; anything that resonates with socializing, dancing, and singing together. Songs such as "Oh Happy Day," and "Too Late to Turn Back Now," are well known songs with the former released in 1969 and the latter in 1972. The songs were part of the soul, rhythm and blues soundtracks furthering a movement that empowered African Americans in their unified fight against segregation and suppression.
Taking the undercover work to a new level, Stallworth discovers that the Klu Klux Klan are recruiting through a newspaper ad, and leaves a message in a white voice, not which is from actual true story, so it furthers his disguise and adds a bit of humor to Lee's version. In the process of leaving a message, which is on an answering machine, he uses his real name. Stallworth speaking with KKK leader by phone uses his savvy vocal inflections to pretend he hates blacks and Jews, convincingly enough that they want a face-to-face meeting with him. Fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays the white Stallworth. Zimmerman executes the task and wins most of the local group over. Adam Driver displays a blend of vulnerability and heroism for this role, and should be considered for nominations as supporting actor.
To play a klan member as an actor, it is probably one of the most difficult to accept roles that the cast will ever experience, but they genuinely appear as fully realized characters; as calculating, conniving propagandists, and lowlife idiots. Spike Lee also doesn't hesitate to let us see how the klan wives are in it for the crusade despite being shut out from their meetings. We see later they're there to do the messy work that their cowardly husbands won't do. Women early on were instrumental in empowering the Klan, and had their "Ladies of the Invisible Empire" gatherings.
Topher Grace is at first unrecognizable, and as the KKK's Grand Wizard, David Duke, he adeptly plays a naive, but oppressive, hatred-gushing, media-savvy racist. We're at a point in time in which Duke is devising a route to gaining political leadership.
Without plot spoiling, there are two speeches that the film offers in parallel to each other. It is so vivid in which every moment is imbued with a sense of horror. KKK members chanting the "America First" phrase, which was resurrected at the most recent presidential campaign stops. Spike Lee wants us to feel we are experiencing history that is repeating itself; a mirror in a sense. His most effective key moments are how he uses the camera as a witness in klan initiation rituals, like the secret handshake, and their viewing parties for watching a horrific 1915 D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation.
All throughout BlacKkKlansman is the dramatic score by Terence Blanchard, known for working on over 22 projects by Spike Lee, he orchestrates music not hidden in the background. The score flourishes in the foreground and keeps the scenes from feeling flat.
One song of note is an unreleased track by Prince in the end credits, "Mary Don't You Weep," and Spike Lee says "Prince wanted me to have that song, I don’t care what nobody says. My brother Prince wanted me to have that song. For this film. There’s no other explanation to me. This cassette is in the back of the vaults. In Paisley Park. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it’s discovered? Nah-ah. That ain’t an accident [laughs]!"
While the Stallworth story wraps up, Lee transports us to a present day reflection of a painful reminder of what occurred a year ago in Charlottesville, VA. The rise of neo-nazis is happening not just in the U.S. but in several countries in Europe. He doesn't hold back on the footage including present day David Duke attributing his cause to the words of Trump.
The end footage of the violence in Charlottesville beckons us to stay alert and don't let the hate speech or violence win. Don't be complacent while innocent people are wrongfully targeted, are falsely accused of criminal behavior, and often are murdered. Heather Heyer is one of thousands of victims dying in a fight against the rise of hatred.
Further viewing: Jordan Peele on his producer role of BlacKkKlansman.
How you can fight the hate: