If this movie didn’t make sure to tell the audience that it was based on some “fo’ real shit”—as it’s put in the trailers and on screen in the first few minutes of the film—the premise of BlacKkKlansman would be hard to believe or even take seriously. There’s no way that a black detective could really infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, become a certified member, and personally befriend Grand Wizard David Duke. If this movie wasn’t based on a book written by the man who did it himself, Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman would play more like a comedy than anything else. But it is true. That’s the best and the worst part. The newest Spike Lee joint is true.
BlacKkKlansman, simply as a film, is very good. It stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth—the eponymous detective and undercover agent. Stallworth is assisted in his investigation by Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), the white face of Stallworth that meets with the KKK in person. In the midst of his investigation, Stallworth begins a romantic relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at the local university, after meeting her at a speech given by Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) (Corey Hawkins), a prominent and influential member of the Civil Rights Movement. Stallworth and his team manage to infiltrate and befriend top members of the local chapter of the KKK, as well as David Duke (Topher Grace) by phone. Throughout their investigation, Stallworth grapples with a dual identity—a black man and a police officer—and the stigma attached to both. He, as he tells himself and Patrice, walks the line between doing his job as a cop and fighting for the liberation of black people.
But BlacKkKlansman is not just a film, and it should not be judged as such. BlacKkKlansman is rife with social commentary, biting call-outs to the world and people of today, and sharp reminders that these problems and these people who seem so ludicrously racist it’s almost laughable are not gone. Certainly, BlacKkKlansman has comedy, and comedy aplenty. The movie is funny. But the movie is deeply disturbing. These members of the KKK, like David Duke himself, who called and shouted for the annihilation of black people and Jews (as focused on in the film, although the hate group targets anyone who is not a white American Protestant), are not long gone. They are still very much alive. They are the ages of parents and of grandparents. These events are not long gone, buried in history. They are the events of the last generation, and the one before that. BlacKkKlansman makes no bones about pointing the finger at people who tolerate, or even applaud the efforts of this hate group and others. In a scene that would be funny if it wasn’t so poignant, Stallworth expresses disbelief at the notion that the American people could ever elect someone like David Duke to the government, to the presidency.
BlacKkKlansman also manages to avoid falling into common traps that await movies like this. Often, in movies that tackle racism, especially through the narrative of slavery, it’s easy for audience members to do two things. First, audience members can watch what is going on— slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, police with riot shields, nonviolent protesters being beaten— and reassure themselves that these things are long behind us. It’s been so long since any of this happened, look how far we’ve come. BlacKkKlansman makes sure to show you present-day footage of events not so dissimilar to the ones that we might brush off as “ancient history.” The second thing that audience members do when presented with characters who are racist is distance themselves from them. Because they don’t own slaves, or they aren’t in the KKK, they aren’t racist. Slavery and Jim Crow are gone, so racism must be over and done with—why are we even talking about it anymore? BlacKkKlansman reminds us that these people in the KKK are some of our parents and grandparents, while the people they were screaming obscenities at and plotting the murders of are the parents and grandparents of some of us. These people were there, and they are still here, passing on their prejudices and biases to their children.
The movie is well-directed, well-shot, well-mixed, and well-acted, but these aspects pale in comparison to its message. BlacKkKlansman is a good movie, but it’s a better work of art containing bitter truths and biting commentary. Unfortunately, the people who disagree with its message probably won’t see it anyway.
Featured Image by Focus Features