If there’s any director who has a firm grasp on the everyday racial injustices plaguing the African-American community in this country and is unafraid of speaking out against them as loudly and as unapologetically as possible, it is Spike Lee. The climax of his 1989 landmark film Do the Right Thing incites when an unarmed black man is strangled to death by a New York City police officer, which sadly feels like it has only become more relevant as that exact same scenario became national news 25 years later with the case of Eric Garner. Lee’s most impacting films are always the ones that feel like they have the most urgent responses to our current political landscape, where you can distinctly hear his own voice seering through the subtext, and BlacKkKlansman feels like Spike’s strongest and most palpable statement in years.
BlacKkKlansman is loosely based on the true story of Colorado Springs rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington) along with fellow officer Flipp Zimmerman (Adam Driver in an Academy Award-nominated role) who launched an investigation to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, gain the trust of David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the KKK played by Topher Grace), and expose their ideologies.
Spike Lee is a director who is typically seen as someone who primarily focuses on “black issues”, and on the surface, BlacKkKlansman might appear to be no different, especially with such a title. Lee’s message with this film, however, is that institutional racism and bigotry is not limited just to those within the African American community but affects us all.
Flipp confronts Ron for taking on this investigation solely as a moral crusade for himself. Ron refutes this assertion by pointing out that Flipp’s Jewish heritage makes him just as much a target of the Klan as Ron is, emphasizing the point that racism, bigotry, and white supremacist organizations are a threat to people of all racial backgrounds, and the only way to effectively fight against them is for white people to recognize the threat that they pose. Flipp later admits to never really thinking much about his Jewish heritage or upbringing, but now thinks about it constantly, which feeds into Lee’s entire message behind enacting change and the discourse surrounding it: by making white people aware of the injustices that they are frequently blind to.
Lee manages to use Stallworth’s story as a means of advocating for diverse voices being heard in order for positive change to be enacted within our society, and for the concerns of our law enforcement to reflect those that are being affected most aggressively. Before Stallworth, the Klan was of no concern for this specific police department, who were far more interested in infiltrating black activist unions than actual hate groups.
Stallworth’s involvement with the police department and this specific case shows an example of the addition of a newfound perspective that has previously gone unheard, which sets forward a course for greater change down the line. However, Lee is perceptive and socially conscious enough not to allow us to feel too good about ourselves and the progress that we’ve made. It allows us to find humor in the absurdity of this situation and allow our protagonists to celebrate their minor victories, but never allows us to become complacent or trivialize the severity of the threat that these organizations continue to pose.
Most notably (and most unsubtly), Lee punctuates the film with footage from the Charlottesville protests in August of 2017, bridging the gap between then and now, demonstrating how these racist hate groups have only been encouraged and emboldened in our current political climate and how little progress has actually been made. The decision to end the film with this montage, while effective in eliciting a visceral emotional response, feels somewhat manipulative in the manner which the footage is used.
In theory, this inclusion is necessary to further deliver the point that this type of violence and racism still exists today by tying it to a specific event in the present day. The images of Neo-Nazis marching the streets with torches screaming “Jews will not replace us”, the current president excusing their actions, and the continued influence and following that David Duke still commands, are harrowing and poignant reminders of our failings as a self-proclaimed progressive society. Some of the footage, however, including video of the driver that killed Heather Heyer and injured several others mowing through a crowd of protestors, felt excessive and exploitative. This sequence does end with a respectful tribute to Heyer, which Lee has been open about asking for permission from Heyer’s mother to include, and the sentiment behind the finale, in general, is important for us to be reminded of, despite how much we are bombarded by this reality nowadays.
The majority of BlacKkKlansman is a mixture of feeling powerfully timely, yet occasionally heavy-handed. Several lines of dialogue that specifically allude to present day events such as “America would never elect someone as racist as David Duke” or a scene in which Duke talks of “restoring America to its former greatness” all feeling like such obvious acknowledgments to current events without much nuance and almost undermines its otherwise insightful commentary.
In an era where we are constantly inundated with nearly everyone’s personal political hot takes, Spike Lee is a voice that feels the most needed within all of this turmoil. He offers a surprisingly measured indictment of the systemic problems ingrained within our government and our society. Blackkklansman is a much welcomed