‘BlacKkKlansman’ Satirizes the Present With the Past

  • Directed by Spike Lee
  • Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee
  • Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Topher Grace

Spike Lee is not a subtle storyteller. He often likes to spotlight as text what other filmmakers confine to subtext. If it’s worth saying, it’s likely worth having it yelled into a microphone or through the fourth wall by Samuel L. Jackson. This approach can seem hamhanded and clunky when it doesn’t work (parts of Chi-Raq), but bold and daring when it does (other parts of Chi-Raq).

BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Detective Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan after becoming the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black officer in the seventies. The premise announces the theme “RACISM IN AMERICA!” so loudly it’s hard to imagine anyone but Spike Lee tackling it — or at least doing so without being compared to him. It’s the type of story that can be marketed as “if it wasn’t true, you wouldn’t believe it.” With its premise and theme set so boldly, Lee can confidently let the story unfold as he uses it to explore his own connected interests.

The film starts with the famous crane shot from Gone With the Wind where Scarlett’s search among the wounded ends on a tattered but nonetheless triumphant Confederate flag. First, the confidence it takes for a filmmaker to lead off with a shot from someone else’s film, and one so well known, is bold in and of itself. Second, it reframes that classic scene so that it’s no longer about wistful nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy. For Lee, it’s a statement about how the Confederacy may have lost the war but was never really defeated. The slave state’s dehumanizing racism not only survived but was celebrated in GWTW and other cultural touchstones revered as classics. From there on, Lee uses Stallworth’s story to deliver example after example of open racism while exploring David Duke’s early attempts to mask the worst parts of the KKK’s agenda while unmasking their faces.

In the end, Spike Lee is a satirist, but any statement on the past is only worth his time if it delivers a comment on the present. The film is so overtly tied to present day American racism that it’s no coincidence it was released almost exactly one year after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. That weekend exposed how unsettled America’s race relations truly are and how unfortunately mainstream David Duke’s message has become.

It’s telling that Lee reset Stallworth’s story from 1979 to 1972 to connect it to the reelection of Nixon, who rose to the presidency on a racist “law and order” platform. It’s almost polite that he didn’t just go ahead and set the film yesterday or tomorrow as an “I told you so” to anyone who’s ever griped about his ongoing focus on race and racism. Charlottesville wasn’t eye opening for Spike Lee, but he’s ready to show everyone what they missed while their eyes were closed.

J. McVay also hosts the BreakThru Radio Weekly podcast, which features reviews of new and recently released movies each week. A discussion of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ will be featured in the 8/17/18 episode.

Watch the trailer for BlacKkKlansman: