clock menu more-arrow no yes

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman draws a ham-fisted line from white supremacy’s past to its present

And it lets white audiences off the hook.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

Midway through Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, mostly set in the 1970s, a white cop explains to the Colorado Springs Police Department’s only black cop that the way to push racist ideologies to the average American who doesn’t consider himself racist is to slip it in beneath other issues, like immigration and crime and affirmative action and tax reform.

Then someday, he continues, Americans will just elect someone who embodies those ideals.

The black cop — Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), our hero — expresses astonishment at the idea that Americans would ever do such a thing. His colleague shakes his head in warning. No, it will happen, he says. Just you wait.

At the film’s world premiere in Cannes, this scene got big laughs — which is obviously the point, since it’s now 2018 and a man beloved by out-and-out racists, including outspoken white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, was elected on a platform that embodies just those ideas. The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

But if BlacKkKlansman’s historical memory of American racism is right on the money — it’s even based on a true story! — its way of drawing out those parallels is far less on target.

BlacKkKlansman isn’t wrong about the evils of white supremacy. But it’s pretty sure you, out in the audience, aren’t going to get it unless it spells out the message in blinking neon lights. And even then, the film seems to fear you might miss the point.

BlacKkKlansman draws a strong — really strong — line between past and present

Arguably, nobody who doesn’t already agree that white supremacy is bad is going to see BlacKkKlansman. In fact, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that most white Americans will howl if you suggest that they subscribe, in any way at all, to racist ideas, or participate uncritically in systems in which white people benefit. (Plenty also embrace white supremacy openly, as it turns out, but they’re definitely not going to see this movie.)

The movie seems to want to shake up the audience, to open their eyes to the dangers that the KKK specifically and white supremacy more broadly pose to not just black Americans but Jewish Americans and others who oppose the “white Christian” agenda, as the film’s white supremacists put it.

BlacKkKlansman aims to accomplish this not only through its story, but with two bookends. The first is a quick prologue set some time in the 1950s, with Alec Baldwin as a man recording a blatantly racist PSA about the insidious “spread of integration and miscegenation” propagated by the “Jewish puppets on the Supreme Court,” except he keeps stumbling over his words and barking at an unseen woman helping him film.

The second is a series of images from the white nationalist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, and the aftermath, including President Donald Trump’s infamous “on both sides” remarks and footage of the car that plowed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer.

At a press conference following the film’s Cannes premiere, Lee said that Charlottesville happened after the film was finished, but he made the decision to append the footage (and asked Heyer’s mother for permission to use her daughter’s image), thereby drawing even clearer parallels between the story told in the film’s center section and events today. White supremacy and the KKK haven’t gone away. They’re right there in front of us, on the news.

That’s all correct and virtually indisputable. It’s what happens in the film’s main stretch that renders it ineffective.

'Blackkklansman' Photocall - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
Spike Lee at the Cannes Film Festival.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

BlacKkKlansman is about an undercover sting operation that makes fools of the KKK

The bulk of BlacKkKlansman is Stallworth’s story, based on his book Black Klansman. Stallworth is the first black cop in the CSPD and at first is subjected to the indignities of working in the Records Room and taking the casual racial insults of an obviously terrible colleague.

Eventually he talks his boss into letting him go undercover, and he ends up at a meeting of the Colorado College Black Students Union, at which former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), now going by the name Kwame Ture, is speaking. He wears a wire so his fellow officers can listen in and figure out if Ture is inciting violence. He also meets the BSU president, Patrice (Laura Harrier), and while trying to work her as a source, he starts to fall for her, even as she and her friends talk angrily about the injustices they face at the hands of cops.

The evening is successful enough that Stallworth is transferred to the intelligence unit, where he spins up an undercover investigation into the local KKK chapter, led by the charismatic Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). The chapter is mostly made up of faintly (and not-so-faintly) ignorant rednecks who prattle on about their own superiority and sense of grievance that their pure white ways of life are being distorted and corrupted by the Jews and the blacks. (They use a different word.)

Stallworth is a skilled code switcher, and on the phone he’s able to convince Breachway that he’s a white American who hates black people and wants to join the KKK. But going undercover at an actual meeting of the Klan (or “the Organization,” as they call it) is obviously impossible. So he enlists his fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be his white double and actually go meet with Breachway and his cronies.

Zimmerman is Jewish — a group the KKK hates as much as black people — but he’s been “passing” for white all his life, and he pulls it off for the sting as well. As the pair find their way inside the organization, they discover a violent plot against members of the BSU.

But in a much weirder twist, Stallworth also strikes up a phone acquaintance with David Duke himself (played, brilliantly, by Topher Grace), with whom he chats on the regular about white supremacy and the wrongs incurred on white Americans. Duke is coming to Colorado Springs. Hijinks, as you might imagine, ensue.

BlackKklansman makes its point but lets its audience off the hook too easily

Frankly, as a white woman, I simply don’t know how this film will play to black audiences. It presents a conflict between two main points of view regarding black characters — that of a black man who’s chosen to be a cop and a black woman who can’t imagine that choice — but the politics there are complex and intense, and they’re left ultimately unresolved.

But I watched the film in a predominantly liberal-leaning white audience at its Cannes premiere, a demographic that tends to love Lee’s work. And by my lights, the biggest problem with BlacKkKlansman lies in its white characters and their effect on its white audience members. That’s not necessarily because they’re caricatures; even casual watchers of the news or readers of the internet in the past two years (such as myself) have discovered that behaviors we might have considered “unrealistic” onscreen in the past — say, a group of white young men marching with torches and shouting, “Jews will not replace us” — aren’t fiction at all.

Racist protesters carry Tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Racist protesters carry tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But if the movie aims to make complacent white people feel uncomfortable about their role in the current American turmoil, it fails spectacularly. The KKK members are, to a one, obviously terrible people, but they’re also just really pathetic. They say “circumstanced” when they mean “circumcised.” They tell extremely dumb jokes. They harbor delusions of grandeur that are in painfully comical contrast to their reality. They’re misogynistic and pompous and stupid.

So naturally, nobody in the audience is going to identify with these men, or the white women around them who are grateful for having been given a meaning and purpose in life. Nor will they identify with the racist white cop, the “bad cop,” as Flip calls him, who eventually reaps what he sows.

The other group of white people in the film are the rest of the police, who are pretty much fundamentally good guys. When Stallworth joins the force, most of them are still willing to put up with racist attitudes or not take the KKK’s threat too seriously. They’re uncritical about this, but over the course of the film, they become a bit more willing to at least eradicate the racism in their own ranks.

BlackKklansman gives its white audience an out: Most any white audience member is going to find their avatar in these folks, the good cops who toss the bad apple. But now it’s 2018, and we all consider ourselves very woke about race. Like the good cops in the movie, we’re well-intentioned but a little more enlightened! And that’s only natural given the ensuing decades, right?

Every laugh in the movie is at the expense of the dumb racist yokels and their dumb racist yokel ideas; the film’s biggest laugh scene involves David Duke, the biggest dumb racist yokel of them all, getting the wind knocked out of him. That laugh feels uncomfortably self-congratulatory. Aren’t we glad we’re not like them?

Yet the point of BlacKkKlansman seems to be that laughing at the KKK, dismissing them as an irrelevant group of backward morons, is what got us Donald Trump. That’s likely the idea behind appending the Charlottesville footage to the end of the film (something, again, that wasn’t in the original plan for the film), which includes Duke’s vocal praise of Trump.

You could argue that the tag is a rebuke to the laughter, some kind of meta-commentary on how we still don’t get it. But the film’s characterization of the KKK members is so broad and so obvious that it never wanted us to take them seriously in the first place.

That’s all underlined by the film’s ham-fisted attempts to make us see that this story from the 1970s is really about America in 2018; the KKK members stop just short of donning red MAGA hats (they have white hoods instead). A room full of KKK members shout, “America first! America first!” There’s the scene where the white cop explains to Stallworth that someone will someday be in the White House who hides his racism beneath policy. And when Duke declared that “it’s time for America to show its greatness again,” the (mostly European) audience guffawed knowingly.

Reality in 2018 can be ham-fisted, to be sure; the writers of history seem to have jumped the shark. But this comes across less as a rattling recognition of the harmony between past and present and more as a very dark inside joke that we’re all meant to get. Ha, ha! Racists sounded the same back then as they do now! Something you’ve never noticed before!

A tweet from David Duke in 2016.
A tweet from David Duke in 2016.

BlacKkKlansman participates in the history-making potential of cinema while criticizing it

A much more interesting idea is floating around in BlacKkKlansman, one that, if pursued, might have made for a much more effective and unnerving film.

At one point, Patrice and Stallworth argue about blaxploitation and representations of black people in films and how those help or hurt the position of black Americans. Images from those films appear onscreen, not just as illustrations, but to remind the audience of characterizations from these very movies — which at times Lee leans into, tracing a line between black cinema from the 1970s to his own representation of black people in this film.

Later in the film, there’s a long discourse from Harry Belafonte, speaking to the BSU about the 1916 Waco lynching of Jesse Washington, about how the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation shaped national attitudes about black people, revived the KKK, and led to horrible mutilations and deaths. Woodrow Wilson even played the film at the White House, he reminds the BSU students, and called it “history written with lightning.”

The scene is intercut with Duke and the KKK chapter watching The Birth of a Nation, hooting and fist-pumping like they’re at a sporting event cheering on their heroes, which, in fact, they are. But it’s Wilson’s quotation that hangs in the air.

Cinema has powerfully shaped American notions about race, creating and fostering stereotypes that bleed off the screen and into policymaking, onto the campaign stage, and into the voting booth. The film’s take on the influence of The Birth of a Nation is not exaggerated. Coupled with the discussion of blaxploitation films and black heroes, it’s powerful.

Because this is all happening on a movie screen, there was a great opportunity for BlacKkKlansman to unsettle those in its audience who are cinephiles, as well as more casual moviegoers — the film is more accessible than many of Lee’s more recent offerings — by reminding them that it’s not just obviously racist movies with obviously racist aims that are at fault. There’s a host of reasons that images are powerful, but when we participate in them uncritically, they can cause real damage to real lives. A film that traffics in depiction of stereotypes contains the rich possibility of exploring that with its audience, showing how they, too, are culpable.

Instead, the film settles for taking pot shots at Trump, whom everyone seeing the movie likely already finds odious and dangerous, and at the KKK, which you’d have to be totally oblivious to disregard in 2018. It’s not wrong. It’s just so obvious that it leaves room for a ponderously predictable net effect. BlacKkKlansman reinforces what we’re already angry about. And it makes us feel glad that we, at least, see through the pathetic lies.

BlacKkKlansman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens in the US on August 10, one year after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville.