As you might expect, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman features the famous W. E. B. Du Bois quote about the “double consciousness” of Black America, being both a member of the American citizenry and the black community at once, not being able to reconcile the two, and constantly feeling at fault for being one or the other. It is a powerful distilling of the everyday black experience in America throughout the country’s history, and also a fitting distillation of Lee’s movie itself. There is a distinct double consciousness in BlacKkKlansman as it both operates within and without of its time period (the early 1970s); it seeps directly into our modern age long before the contemporary footage is shown at the end of the film, showing recent violent acts of White Supremacy and the repercussions thereof. Lee’s film is Essential Viewing, a piece of art chronicling racial relations in this country and the self-same struggle it faces today – not just with race, but also with sex and politics.
Our window into this world is told through the true story of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington), the first black police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who went undercover with a fellow white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan. We are taken deep into each side of the conflict – the police officers simply doing their “jobs,” the Klan members both in and out of the white sheets, and the Black Power movement, seen through the eyes of a local college’s BP President (Laura Harrier).
The way that Stallworth is written presents a perfect stand-in for any particular audience member to project themselves. While interacting with the white police officers at work, Stallworth is a staunch, yet mostly careful, leftist, attempting to make his halfway-there colleagues become “woke,” or in the very least, respectful. However, when interacting with the radical-for-her-time Patrice Dumas (Harrier), Stallworth plays the devil’s advocate for his profession, suggesting that trying to change the system is just as, if not more effective, than attacking it. It is a complex role to dig into and one that democratically shows both sides of the argument, but one that also runs into trouble when faced with too much political sympathy. Washington handles this shaky ground with strong care. The film brings up the notion of harmless “rhetoric” that turns into dangerous action, presenting a frightening causality to its audience. With it being dangerous in the modern age to not take a clear stance on such issues by way of allowing racism, bigotry and the like to continue to happen, Lee gives Washington a mountain of a role to climb, one that Washington tackles beautifully and with finesse.
Lee has always been known to push racial, gender and economic boundaries, whether or not it is always completely effective. He does the same here, giving nuance to Driver’s role as a white Jewish man who has dealt with the world’s bigotry and anti-semitism as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue until it is simply un-ignorable. Like Stallworth, Zimmerman also represents a modern consciousness of privilege, acting on injustice only when it inconveniences the individual. The beauty of these characters is that, despite their flaws, they are capable of change, however small, toward the betterment of society as a whole.
Although each and every performance in this film is worth its own merit, – including Topher Grace’s portrayal as the KKK’s Grand Wizard, David Duke, an aloof and somewhat meek face of racism – this film is not really about performances, but rather about its characters, story, message, sensibility, and timelessness. Each actor filled their roles with precision and reverence, and did not try to rise above the film.
You know what else? BlacKkKlansman is hilarious. Although you’ll sometimes feel nearly ashamed to laugh, Lee smacks his audience with humor, challenging us to see the ridiculousness of certain racial traditions while also coming to grips with the constancy of racism in our culture, no matter how woke we really are.
There are definitely aspects of this film I could criticize, but I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to the film’s timely necessity and amazing impact. The narrative structure and style can digress into being cookie cutter at times, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s biting and comedic dialogue as well as its cohesiveness in political and social discourse. Lee’s work goes beyond any nitpicky critique I have of its structural elements.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
BlacKkKlansman is a must-see for all of the world. It is a period piece and true story that roots itself in recent history. It has its own clear political message and bias, but its complexity and detail in telling America’s history of racism has the power to open a healthy discourse across political parties and across national borders. Beyond its pointed messaging, it is entertaining, funny, stylish, and worthy of anyone’s time.