“With the right white man, you can do anything,”John David Washington says as Ron Stallworth—the black Colorado Springs, Colo., police officer who went “undercover” in the Ku Klux Klan—in Spike Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman. This sentiment is also an entire mood. Oh, AmeriKKKa.
Stallworth’s tale of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan might be set in the ’70s, but Spike Lee wants to make it very clear that it’s not a period piece. He teamed up with University of Kansas film professor and frequent collaborator Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq) and decided the best way to interpret the true story into film was to connect it to the ridiculous and very racist world we live in today.
The overt racism of the ’70s looks a lot like Trump’s America. When Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs Police Department, one of the officers attempted to explain to him that politics is often used as a medium to spread hate. Immediately, you’re thrust into thinking of the man that many confused souls elected president in 2016.
Stallworth is shocked and says America would never elect a president like that. Yes, indeed America would elect a bigot as president. The audience laughed at Ron’s ignorance, of course, knowing that’s exactly who America voted for in the last election.
Once Stallworth is brought into the police force, the chief tells him, “I’ll have your back, but most of it will be on you.” If that ain’t white allies in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. Even when they show up and rally for black lives, all of the weight is still carried on our backs. Racism wasn’t created by us, but it is our cross to bear. Of course, the weight is lighter when we have allies, but those people are few and far between. I’ll come back to the topic of white allies later.
To be honest, the chief is never much of an ally for Stallworth. There is no way that this black man couldn’t join a police department in the ’70s without facing racism. He’s definitely black before he’s blue, which is one of the biggest conflicts Stallworth faces in this film.
But it seems Spike only chose one ignorant cop in a sea of white officers who allows his racism to seep through his pores. There’s always got to be that one.
In fact, when Stallworth finds out that the single, solitary racist cop at the precinct gets his rocks off by pulling over and intimidating black people (a tense scene that surprisingly doesn’t end in death), he confronts the “white” Ron Stallworth (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver) about why he’s never turned him in and Flip says, “Good, bad, right or wrong, we stick together.”
Stallworth wants to prove that he’s a viable part of the Colorado Springs Police Department rather than just a quota for diversity hires, so he asks to go undercover. Of course, he is met with opposition, but days later, the chief has an undercover assignment for him.
Stallworth is sent to an event happening on Colorado College’s campus, presented by the Black Student Union. They bring in civil rights movement speaker and the creator of the phrase, “Black Power,” Kwame Ture. His riveting rhetoric warns the students to get armed and ready for the race wars that are sure to come.
Stallworth is sent to verify the chief’s concerns about Ture’s powerful words getting into the minds of the “good black people” of Colorado Springs. This assignment seems to move Stallworth in a way that allows him to find his purpose in that police department. Stallworth is inspired to help affect racial change, but from the inside.
When he meets Black Student Union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), he’s all googley eyed. But this woman is an Angela Davis type, constantly protesting and fighting the power. She challenges Ron’s ideas of black and white power and, at one point (after the two spend lots of quality time together), Stallworth tells Patrice to “give it a rest,” and she tells him she can’t because black people can’t afford to rest.
It’s funny because eventually when human scab and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke visited Colorado Springs, instead of being sent to make sure his racist rhetoric doesn’t infiltrate the town in some horrible way, Stallworth is sent to protect Duke because there were viable threats on his life.
One of the things this movie does well is that is allows you to laugh at the sheer stupidity of racism and white supremacy. Stallworth’s first contact with the KKK over the phone allows us to hear his over-amplified, white voice. And when he says the word “white,” he does so in a very breathy way and adds a “k” sound into the beginning. Say it with me: whyquite.
Every phone conversation Stallworth has is a hilarious revelation of the ignorances of white supremacy. Especially when it comes to Stallworth chatting with the Grand Wizard himself. They share anecdotes comparing black mammies to good dogs, what it means to be a true, good, whquite American and even get into the conversation about the differences between the way white and black people talk.
One of the film’s most profound moments is the retelling of the lynching of Jesse Washington by Jerome Turner, played by Harry Belafonte. This scene takes place at a Colorado College black student union meeting, while juxtaposed with a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony, where they exuberantly watch The Birth of a Nation. You can see the stark difference between both groups’ rallying cries: black power and white power. The former is a demand for equality while the latter is a proclamation of supremacy.
Throughout the movie, there’s the stress of hoping that white and black Ron Stallworth don’t get exposed for being cops. It leaves you worried throughout the movie, but it’s thrilling, almost like a rollercoaster coming around the corner and that moment before it hits the big drop.
One of the KKK members that causes a lot of that thrilling tension is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). He represents the template of a white supremacist—all irrational hate. He’s the one that takes membership into the KKK very seriously.
Meetings often take place at his house, where Felix’s wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) begs to be included in the violent bigotry the group is planning. I didn’t I understand why there was such a focus on these two as a couple, but Connie’s willingness and choice of hate-filled pillow talk reminded me of the complicity of white women when it comes to racism in America. Instead of using their position of influence with her supremacist partner for good, Connie used it for evil.
White Ron Stallworth’s sudden appearance gives Felix pause. Felix challenges White Ron’s whiteness by constantly insisting that he’s a Jew. White Ron is Jewish, but he’s never fully identified with it. He tells Black Ron that the case makes him think about race and identity. Black Ron tells him, “Don’t act like you ain’t got skin in the game!”
Without offering any spoilers, the movie ends with a cute little tied-up bow. It’s pretty annoying, honestly. Let’s just say, that the crooked and racist cop who hates black people finally faces his day of reckoning, but under a rom-com-esque lens. You’ll see.
At the end of the film, Spike Lee includes a video footage from the Charlottesville, Va., protests that included people of color and white allies like martyr, Heather Heyer, who lost her life marching and rallying for black lives.
While this is refreshing, it immediately gave me pause because there were hardly any black protestors shown. In an interview, I asked Lee about his choice in the footage and he explained: “Charlottesville, that was not just black people out there. I had no hesitation at all showing her face the end. She was courageous. It’s not a black and white thing for me. Heather Heyer was on the side of truth, of justice. She was out there trying to say no to the Klan, no to alt-right, no to those motherfucking Neo-Nazis.”
BlacKkKlansman is a solid offering from Spike Lee that confronts the idiocy of white supremacy, the power of protest and fighting back and this country’s racism problem that is embedded in our past and present.