‘BlacKkKlansman’ And The American Past That’s Still Present

‘BlacKkKlansman’ lulls the viewer into easy readings of good/evil, only to complicate what those terms mean and how they apply in our ever-more-divided country. It asks us how we’ve managed to come so far, only to wind up back where we started, as if we’ve never moved at all.

I felt an uncomfortable species of curiosity as I entered a Las Vegas theater to see Spike Lee’s newest joint, BlacKkKlansman. What sort of crowd had come? Having read a friend’s Facebook posts about watching Lee’s Chi-Raq alone in Chicago, I wondered how many locals and tourists would turn out for a movie, based on a true story, about a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs.

I estimate the theater to have been 75% full and 90% white. What would this mean? Had some of these viewers come to boo and hiss at a black man’s film and its interrogation of America’s race problems? Were they longtime Lee fans, or hardcore leftists, or people who had no idea what they might be getting into?

I don’t have any sure answers, but I can report that nobody booed; that several audience members applauded during the end credits; and that two young men, both white, walked behind me down the long, carpeted hallway and pronounced the film “a little divisive, but really good.”

I would go further. BlacKkKlansman may well be Spike Lee’s best work since the equally incendiary, complex Do the Right Thing. As for divisive, well, if you’re looking for a movie that gives the KKK and racists in general a “fair” shake, you’re either Dinesh D’souza, a Fox News personality, Donald Trump, or a garden-variety jerk. Feel free to exit this essay immediately.

The basic plot: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African-American police officer on the Colorado Springs force. Discontented with a dull job in the records division, Stallworth, while still a rookie, finds himself in charge of an investigation into the local KKK chapter after he answers a recruiting ad by phone. After foolishly giving his real name to the local KKK leader, Walter (Ryan Eggold), he teams up with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who handles all the face-to-face meetings with the white supremacists, calling himself “Ron Stallworth.” The Jewish Zimmerman’s job is complicated by the KKK’s virulent anti-Semitism, and the film provides several discomforting scenes of Stallworth’s using racist epithets over the phone and Zimmerman’s invocation of racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic rhetoric in person—no Tarantinoesque use of the “n-word” for easy laughs here. How hard must Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s jobs have been if the true story hews anywhere close to the bones of Lee’s film?

Beyond the pleasure of watching Lee work at the height of his powers, the most interesting part of my viewing experience was listening to the audience. Though Walter seems intelligent on the unrepentant-bigot sliding scale, and his right-hand man Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) correctly never trusts Stallworth/Zimmerman, the KKK members are mostly portrayed as knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing dumbasses. Their pathetic attempts at organization, rhetoric, and plain old articulation of basic thoughts spurred much of the audience to laugh in nearly every scene of the first two acts. It felt right, even vindicating, to sit among those who recognize the illogic, the stupidity, the miserable and masturbatory groupthink of racists.

At the same time, I could not forget that such portrayals and responses could be dangerous. It might be possible for the so-called “liberal intellectuals” in the crowd to dismiss Lee’s Klansmen as bumbling stooges, but people just like those racists exist in our world. As a child of the deep south, I have heard conversations precisely like the dialogue between Walter, Felix, Stallworth/Zimmerman, and the rest. I know the legacy of Sundown Towns, invoked in Lee’s film when the bigoted Officer Landers (Frederick Weller) tells Patrice (Laura Harrier) to make sure Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) vacates Colorado Springs by sunrise, or else. I have lived my life in a country where many police officers have verbally and physically abused or killed people of color, and I have struggled to understand how my own life’s experiences contributed to or resisted all this hatred and separation. While it feels good in the moment, we dismiss racists at our peril. Whether you believe Russia helped them or not, they have managed to put one of their own in the White House, and our current Congress only enables this man’s racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, classist ideology.

Is that funny? To what extent? On whom has the joke been played?

Perhaps, if we laugh, we do so to keep from crying.

Much subtler are two cross-cut scenes—one in which Stallworth/Zimmerman is inducted into the Klan by David Duke (Topher Grace, in perhaps his best performance ever), and another during which Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) tells the Colorado Springs University Black Student Union a horrific tale of a lynching. In the Klan scene, Duke invokes the need for white power and racial purity to “take America back.” (From whom? For whom? Which America?) In Belafonte’s scene, he describes the lynching in vivid detail—the trumped-up charges, the killing, the emasculation, the burning, the taking of body parts as souvenirs, the photographs-turned-postcards—murder as white family outing.

At the end of the Klan scene, the members chant, “White power! White power!” At the end of the scene with the BSU, the members chant, “Black power! Black power!”

Each viewer must interpret this juxtaposition. Is Lee suggesting that any call for power centralized in one group is equally seductive and dangerous? Is he contrasting the calls, pointing out how the Klan wants to keep power through violence and political structures while African-Americans want to gain some power for the first time by resisting oppression? I would lean toward the latter reading, or something like it, but in these scenes, Lee invites the viewer to participate in meaning-making.

For viewers in 2018 and beyond, it’s hard to miss how Lee connects the events in Colorado to America today. Racist white people want to keep their power, ignoring or supporting oppression and their own privilege. Black people want their lives to matter. Black bodies, including Stallworth’s, are beaten by white police officers. Stallworth refuses to believe that America, built by chattel slaves, could ever elect a man like David Duke to any office, a scene that brought knowing laughter in my theater as we thought of today’s GOP. Stallworth, a black man and a cop, must defend both parts of his identity because so many people believe they cannot coexist. Is such a thing possible?

Most chillingly, Lee ends with a gut-punch—real-world footage of the fascist march on Charlottesville, the counter-demonstrations, the car that plowed into the crowd during the latter event, and Donald Trump himself, assuring us that both sides were to blame and that the fascist, racist anti-Semites with their khakis and tiki torches were also “some very fine people.” In the film, white cops work with a black officer to curtail bigotry. In the Charlottesville scenes, bigotry is excused, normalized, and justified by a man people call the President.

BlacKkKlansman lulls the viewer into easy readings of good/evil, only to complicate what those terms mean and how they apply in our ever-more-divided country. It asks us how we’ve managed to come so far, only to wind up back where we started, as if we’ve never moved at all.

Perhaps we haven’t. In 2018, it is difficult to think of a more important issue to address.

Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at officialbrettriley@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.

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