BlacKkKlansman Movie Parallels Our Reality

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) was one of those movies I knew was well-made and important, but that I didn’t wholly comprehend. While I fully believe in the power of movies to incite positive change, I admit that sometimes I miss the social commentary and context that makes this possible. That being said, I do not think I absorbed the full impact of BlacKkKlansman, which critics are praising as Lee’s major comeback. I argue that you don’t have to. It is possible to grasp at least some of its many messages, and of course, to enjoy it.

BlacKkKlansman is shockingly based on a true story from the life of protagonist, Ron Stallworth. Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police force in the 1970s. Restless and disrespected by fellow officers, he successfully asks the chief (Robert John Burke) for a transfer to the undercover department. Inspired by a newspaper advertisement, Stallworth calls the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and decides to embark on an undercover mission. By posing as a white man, he enlists the help of detectives Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Zimmerman is tasked with pretending to be Stallworth for in-person meetings, to officially initiate as a member of the chapter. Meanwhile, Stallworth begins an over-the-phone relationship with an unsuspecting and infamous David Duke (Topher Grace), grand wizard of the KKK.

While I have only seen two other Spike Lee films – the other being Chi-Raq (2015) – it is clear that his movies (or “joints” as he calls them) are distinctively his. He thrives on unconventionality and innovative form, offering a powerful medium of storytelling. He opens the film with a camera rehearsal by a fictional Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin), who spews outright racist and hateful propaganda. Although the speech is deadly serious, Lee pokes fun through Baldwin’s fantastic, comical delivery. In fact, he cuts across a variety of genres, causing audiences to experience a mix of laughter, uneasiness, anger, excitement and more. His unique style is reflected in the inability to categorize the film: Google suggests “Drama/Crime,” Rotten Tomatoes “Comedy, Drama” and Wikipedia “biographical comedy-drama.”

The story is biographical, and the characters are so real, portrayed with complexity and humanity – although some with a lack thereof. It comes as no surprise that Washington is his father’s (Denzel) son, in his confident and empathetic performance as Ron Stallworth. Stallworth strongly believes that he can work within the system to bring the “liberation of black people,” in contrast to a rising movement resistant to the justice system that has so long forsaken and assaulted them. Similarly, Driver is authentic and natural as Zimmerman, a jaded detective who confronts his own identity as a Jewish man, while playing the role of an impending KKK bigot. Topher Grace was an interesting, but surprisingly fitting, choice for David Duke.

I don’t wish to spoil the ending, but it is what hit me the hardest. The film closes with footage from all-too-recent events that have occurred since the beginning of Trump’s administration. There are a disturbing number of parallels drawn between the film’s setting and our own world, leaving viewers more unsettled than anything else. For instance, Duke’s push for policies like affirmative action that mask blatant racism ring true but also mild in compared to the discourse heard today.

The pace and build of BlacKkKlansman might be a bit slow for some, but I encourage all viewers to stick it out for the high reward; you won’t regret it. Besides, Spike Lee understands that a good movie should educate and always entertain; this film does both. What more could one ask for?

Contact Gloria Han at [email protected].