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BlacKkKlansman

Oh, the notoriously thorny problem of how to portray hate groups in cinema. How to portray Nazis as a serious threat without feeding into their delusions and giving them fuel for propaganda (see: American History X). Alternatively, how to make fun of white supremacists without trivializing the threat they pose (see: “Springtime for Hitler”). It’s a tricky needle to thread, and of course Spike Lee addresses the subject with all his characteristic subtlety.

I know. I couldn’t even type that last part with a straight face.

BlacKkKlansman tells the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, here immortalized by former UFL running back John David Washington (son of Denzel). Stallworth was hired in 1972 as the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1979, Stallworth called the KKK in response to a local newspaper ad, and began an undercover operation infiltrating the KKK. He did this in tandem with white Detective Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver), who played the “in-person” role of Ron Stallworth while the actual Ron Stallworth handled interactions over the phone.

Oh, and Zimmerman has distant Jewish roots, did I mention that part? Because that’s something for him to come to terms with as he infiltrates a crew of anti-Semites.

Obviously, some liberties were taken in the adaptation. Things were truncated so that Stallworth is still a rookie on the force, without seven years of service under his belt. There’s also a bomb plot and a bunch of other stuff put in to raise the stakes. Still, the plot flows nicely enough, the racial comedy gets a ton of laughs, and the performances are all solid. This is a praiseworthy breakout performance from John David Washington, and I got a huge kick out of Topher Grace’s slimy portrayal of David Duke. Kudos are also due to Laura Harrier as the love interest, Adam Driver is a reliable talent as always, and Corey Hawkins puts in a brief yet memorable and fiery performance as Kwame Ture nee Stokely Carmichael.

(Side note: Washington isn’t the only one in the cast with a more famous relative. Look for Steve’s brother Michael Buscemi and John’s brother Nicholas Turturro in minor supporting roles.)

But of course all of this is beside the main attraction.

The centerpiece of the film is in how Spike Lee portrays white racist assholes. Of course we have the politically minded and ambitious David Duke, but we also have the toothless chapter president (Walter, played by Ryan Eggold), we’ve got the overly aggressive numbskull (Felix, played by Jasper Paakkonen), we’ve got the drunken braindead neanderthal (Ivanhoe, played by Paul Walter Hauser), and then of course we have the racist cop eager to abuse his power (Landers, played by Frederick Weller). Oh, and let’s not forget Alec Baldwin, who opens the film with a memorable cameo role spewing racist pseudoscience.

While there are subtle differences between all these racist white characters, it’s kind of hard to notice the differences when every word out of their mouths is a load of ignorant bile. They’re all buying the same bullshit, all lost in their shared power fantasy. It’s notable that there’s no effort of any kind to try and humanize the racists or understand how they’ve come to buy into any of this. It’s a prominent blind spot, but let’s be honest: There’s nothing logical about racism, so why even bother trying to apply any kind of logic to it?

Instead, it’s far more important to focus on how white supremacy is far bigger than a couple of random assholes burning crosses. David Duke played a huge part of making the KKK more mainstream, phrasing the Klan’s agenda in political terms that voters could support and get behind. Moreover, when racism has become so thoroughly hard-wired into our politics and our law enforcement, racists on every step of the socioeconomic ladder have the power to hurt countless people who have no recourse but protests.

All throughout the movie, there’s the constant reminder that this story will not end when the credits roll. There will be no comeuppance for David Duke, and the KKK will not be destroyed. The offensive rhetoric and catchphrases spewed by the KKK in this movie will be repeated for the next 40 years all across the country. And if the point wasn’t clear enough, here’s footage of President Trump fueling the racist demonstrators in Charlottesville as a Nazi sympathizer drives a goddamn car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters and kills Heather Heyer.

On the other hand, the movie also presents us with a college group of black activists, led by Laura Harrier’s character. This movie shows a particularly extreme brand of black activism, professing that all cops are inherently racist and violence is the only proper response to black people getting gunned down with impunity. This is the group that insists there’s no such thing as a good cop because the system will resist all change from the inside. Yet the movie clearly shows us an example of how a well-intentioned black cop can win hearts and minds and help make incremental changes from the inside. And remember, this is based on a true story — we know for a fact that Ron Stallworth really did make a difference, and there’s always room for another officer of color to step in and do the same.

I should also note the scenes in which one character addresses a crowd, literally preaching to the audience. When Lee did this in Chi-Raq, it brought the whole movie to a dead halt for minutes at a time. But it works in this movie because Lee is good enough to keep an undercurrent of conflict going, and it’s often done in clever ways. That said, the methods can get a bit dicey — in one sequence, David Duke’s address to his followers is intercut with Jerome Turner (played by goddamn Harry Belafonte) addressing the Black Power activists. It’s horribly tempting to think that the filmmakers are making some kind of unflattering equivalence with this sequence, saying that this union of black college students is just as bad as the fucking KKK. But personally, I would give Lee a bit more credit and assume that he’s energizing the sequence by editing together a conflict of ideologies.

For better or worse, Spike Lee is not a filmmaker who does anything halfway. This is a guy who makes every movie like it’s potentially his last, so he’s sure to put everything on the table and leave nothing to interpretation. There’s no denying that Lee is an unapologetic firebrand who actively courts controversy and doesn’t give a fuck who gets offended. The guy’s brash and abrasive, and I’m sure that will turn off a lot of filmgoers. Then again, there will be just as many filmgoers who appreciate a movie talking about this subject in such aggressive terms, and that’s the audience Lee was clearly making the movie for.

Ultimately, BlacKkKlansman is a Spike Lee joint about institutional racism, police brutality, and how little ways we’ve come since the Civil Rights Movement. You should already know what you’re in for. This is not an easy watch and it’s not for all tastes. But if you appreciate the need for racially charged cinema that directly addresses the institutional racism that claims lives every day, to say nothing of the literal goddamn Nazis who’ve been emboldened in recent years, you should definitely give this movie a good hard watch.

Put it this way: If Blindspotting was taurine, BlacKkKlansman would be crack cocaine. There’s definitely a place for a film that’s intelligent and hard-hitting, but accessible and user-friendly with a hint of optimism. But there’s also a place for the hard stuff, and if you want it raw and uncut, Spike Lee’s got your fix.

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