Our world is in desperate need of change. If you are like me, you may feel as though you do not know how you can do your part to help mend wounds of society that are still open and bleeding after hundreds of years. Political activism is a necessity but it is a slow and resistant mechanism to change, or else things would already be fixed. While our governing bodies begrudgingly crawl at a dangerously slow pace to reflect the values they so proudly claim to champion, we must realize that is but one element of our problem. For us, as the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world” to live up to that moniker, we need to also put in the work to better ourselves at the individual level.
I have no local protests that I can join and I am desperately searching for some outlet that I can contribute even the slightest to the dialogue that needs to be had. Whether it be by coincidence or a pseudo-premonition, I had just shown my parents the film “BlacKkKlansman” a week ago, just a few days before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police was caught on film and exposed for the world to see. I had already seen it twice when it was making its theatrical run in 2018 and I had recalled the visceral reaction I had when leaving the theater both times. It is a film with a painfully clear message that has criminally never been addressed in the myriad of generations that preceded both the story and the film, and have only been exacerbated in the time since. I do not know what else to do right now, but I will use this opportunity to talk about a tremendous work of cinema, to the best of my abilities, and hopefully be able to contribute in someway to the goals that director Spike Lee would have hoped would come from his work.
The film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who becomes the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s and begins an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white officer, Flip (Adam Driver). Together, they infiltrate a local chapter of the white supremacist organization in order to stop the presumptive assassination of the leader of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) after she hosted national civil rights leader Brother Kwame Ture to speak at an event. Ron meets and befriends Patrice while undercover at the speech, but they quickly discover that they follow two different paths to achieve a common goal. Patrice and Brother Kwame, who are advocates for a coming “Black Revolution”, are unlawfully arrested, harassed, and sexually harassed by a member of the Colorado Springs Police. Meanwhile, Ron is an undercover cop trying to use the system that has treated black people like animals against the Klan to protect her.
The characters also serve as microcosms of the differing ideologies about racism and police. Beginning with Ron and Patrice, we see how the black public has lost faith in law enforcement to protect them and views them as the oppressor. Patrice is correct in her evaluation and the film does not hide the fact that many officers, both local and federal, actively pursue racially charged actions and hide under the cover of their badge. Ron represents the idea that not all cops are bad and some have moral goals for pursuing law enforcement. Flip shows that not all white cops are racist, but before he met Ron, he was passively going along with it because it was not any of his business. And Fredrick Weller’s Master Patrolman Andy Landers is the cop that fully and intentionally abuses his authority to criminalize being black in his community. And while the overlying issue of “Everyone versus Racism” is a clear moral dichotomy, Spike Lee shows that multiple conflicting truths about racism and law enforcement can all exist simultaneously underneath the surface.
Undoubtedly, the most powerful trait of this film is its ability to expressly paint parallels to our modern world, and thus make the viewer really ponder their own place in the system. It is one thing to recount the events of the past and think “Oh, that is horrible! How could that ever happen?”, and it is entirely another when that very same film forces you to face the fact that the problem is alive and well almost 50 years later. I believe it to be the true genius of Spike Lee that he removes all notion of ambiguity, bombards you with a clear message, but the mediums he utilizes never feel contrived. Imagine a viewer who does not want to hear this message for whatever their stated reasons are, whether they feel it is anti-Trump or a direct lecture on their own character. Instinctively, they would likely put up their own walls and refuse to listen, which is human nature. But “BlacKkKlansman” powers through this reflex. There is no way to deflect this message because it utilizes real, current parallels. It is right to the point and it hits hard.
Because of the brutality and truthfulness of the subject-matter, Lee infuses a seamless blend of dark comedy and melancholy to make this tough pill easier to swallow. Afterall, the goal is for you to absorb the message, not drown in it. Washington and Driver display amazing chemistry, wit, and heart in their portrayals, and Topher Grace makes a surprisingly bombastic performance as real life former Grand Wizard David Duke both alluring and infuriating. It cannot be understated just how important the acting is to making this movie the force that it is. This message is not a new one. The black community has been pleading with the rest of society for centuries with this message, and artists have and continue to find new ways to express this. It is the persistence and creativity of the artist that propels each iteration of this message to provide a unique and differently powerful punch that it does.
There is no way around the fact that “BlacKkKlansman” will make you feel. It is up to you to determine if those feelings are that of shame, anger, hope, heartbreak, or inspiration. The closing minutes of this film are a montage of real-life footage taken during the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” of 2017, in which hoards of tiki-torch wielding white people chanted the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil”, as well as “Jews will not replace us” throughout the city as they protested the removal of a Confederate Monument from a public park, and in turn were met with protests that sparked an explosion of civil rights rallies across the country in response. What you are shown is real and it is happening now. The idea that this is an issue of the past is a myth. Racism still exists. It is strong. It is openly supported by leaders of the United States. It is still violent. It is still perpetrated by our criminal justice system. And “BlacKkKlansman” forces us to confront that reality.
To many, none of this is news. To members of the black community, this is a daily reality and nothing more than an artistic representation of normal life. Many white people, such as myself, cannot understand that reality on our own. We have never lived in a system that oppresses us and actively treats us with malicious intent. It is imperative for us to listen, now more than ever. Seek to understand and help. Be an ally. This should not be and is not a “Black versus White” issue. This is “Everyone versus Racism”. Do not be defensive because we are not the victims. Apathy and indifference are not an option and silence is deafening. Change is long overdue.
In an ideal world, a film like “BlacKkKlansman” would be a once in a generation masterpiece. It is a production that will undoubtedly stand the test of time, but based on our track record, racial injustice will continue to survive, even if it just changes its appearance. I recall my father showing me the film “Mississippi Burning” both as a child and an adult and thinking that we should have moved past living in a society that would still so openly protect racism long ago. The ideas seemed so clear and obvious and the message seemingly has been penetrating through to white audiences for at least a generation now, so I couldn’t comprehend the disconnect between understanding and lack of change. In between these two films, there is a rich bounty of stories on the subject that do not get the audience a film like this does, just as there are likely thousands of instances of racist brutality that is not captured on video for the world to see. The message of this film is not simply that racism is bad, it is that racism is brutal, alive, fortified, omnipresent and it is our responsibility to not repeat the failures of the past because we ARE failing.
“BlacKkKlansman” earns a 9.5 out of 10
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Fredrick Weller, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson
Directed by: Spike Lee
Runtime: 2 Hours and 15 Minutes
If you feel inspired to help make a difference and do not know how to put that to practice, you can start with simply having an open dialogue. After, I recommend visiting BlackLivesMatter.com , NAACP.org and ACLU.org for ideas on how to take action in your community. Please, everyone stay safe out there. Do not forget that we are still under a pandemic and that you should social distance where possible and where a mask and gloves when out in public. Don’t let one tragedy hide under the shadow of another.