A month ago, the day before the Academy Awards, I watched BlacKkKlansman, a film directed by Spike Lee and produced by Jordan Peele. It is also a Blumhouse Productions film; even though Spike Lee’s film isn’t a Blumhouse-style scary movie, its topic is still incredibly disturbing and should in fact be categorized as a horror film.
It is based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, a black man living during the 1970s who applies for a job at the Colorado Springs Police Department and ends up becoming a records clerk there. His coworkers don’t see his potential to get into the nitty gritty of the cases, but after persuading them he’s got credentials, they have him go undercover as a detective to investigate a Black Power movement meeting, during which the president of the Black Student Alliance called upon black students to celebrate having natural hair, black-owned businesses and, first and foremost, community. Ron, while undercover, meets a young woman named Patrice who falls in love with him. However, Ron gets into another sticky situation by calling the leader of the Klu Klux Klan, the notorious terrorist group known for its explicit discrimination of minorities, and pretending he is a racist white man who wants to join the organization. Ron has his white Jewish partner-in-crime, Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman, go undercover since, obviously, if he were to go himself, he could get killed. Zimmerman starts to act like a member of the KKK while undercover, but Lee doesn’t shy away from the fact that the KKK is suspicious of Zimmerman and even have him take a lie detector test to prove he isn’t Jewish.
Indeed, Lee’s film says as much about the social construct of whiteness as much as it does blackness. Ron constantly reminds Flip that he is Jewish, but Flip reminds Ron that most of his life, he didn’t feel Jewish because he blended in with the other white kids in his community and didn’t grow up celebrating Jewish traditions, such as having a bar mitzvah. However, as Flip infiltrates the KKK more and more, he becomes more hyper-aware of his identity as a Jewish person. This reminded me of the massacre that occurred last fall at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and how Jewish writers for op-ed pieces about the massacre and other anti-Semitic hate crimes were saying that this hate crime caused them to question whether they really benefited from white privilege if Jewish people have had to endure so much oppression for many centuries. It shows how whiteness doesn’t really say anything about someone’s ethnicity because race is about how we see others, and that conversations around white privilege are not so two-dimensional once we listen to and read about individuals’ differing experiences with whiteness. Also, the conversation around whiteness is complicated because if it were just about white privilege, we’d be leaving out Jews of color from the conversation since many Jews of color don’t benefit from white privilege. Again, it’s a hard conversation to just put in a box, but this is just something I thought was really important about the film.
(Also, side note: I have only seen Adam Driver in romantic comedies and as Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi, but he played Flip very well and this film served as an opportunity for him to show his versatility as an actor. I somehow thought I wouldn’t want to see the film because it reminded me of when Paul Dano, an actor with a cherubic face and a sweet disposition, played a Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave and called Chiwetel Ejiofor the n-word several times throughout the film and had Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup lynched. I didn’t think I’d see Dano the same way again while watching Ruby Sparks, but then again, I have to remind myself that actors shouldn’t be pigeonholed. This was a good role for Adam Driver because it showed both his sweet side and his dark side when playing in character.)
Another issue that Spike Lee addresses is the complicity of white women in the KKK’s activities. In a disturbingly brilliant scene, Lee switches back and forth between the KKK induction and the Black Power meeting where Harry Belafonte is talking about the lynching of a young black man. When all of the members of the KKK are inducted, all of their white wives rush in and congratulate them. It seems so innocent, like they’re at these boys’ high school graduation ceremony, but you realize quickly after the scene switches to everyone at the KKK ceremony watching Birth of a Nation, a racist 1919 film by D.W. Griffith that showed white actors enacting racist caricatures of African-Americans wearing black cork on their faces, black people getting lynched, and the KKK killing black people. The wife of one of the KKK members in particular is very complicit in a lot of the film’s racism; when she tries to get involved with the KKK’s activities at first, her husband Felix, dismisses her, but then she quickly tells him that one day Felix will ask her for a favor and will regret ever dismissing her like that. During the filming of Birth of a Nation, she is especially loud in cheering on the KKK for their horrific acts. Throughout the film, she is heavily involved with the KKK’s affairs.
The film also shows actual footage of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally and pays tribute to Heather Heyer, a young woman killed after a white nationalist protester rammed his car into several people, killing Heyer and injuring many others. Seeing this footage gave me the chills, but it taught me that is why we need to keep having these difficult conversations about activism and oppression. The mere words in this post simply cannot convey how watching this film really shook me to my core. The musical score also really conveyed how powerful the film was; the score lost to Black Panther, another excellent film with excellent music, but it was still incredible how well the music production team put this music together for the film. I also really liked the scene where Ron and Patrice dance to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose because I love that song.
But then again, I’m not surprised that the film made me feel this way. Spike Lee’s films are well known for talking about topics that aren’t light and fluffy. Bamboozled, for instance, is a very scary film about how a black man tries to get back at his racist boss by producing a show in which two light skinned black men don blackface and enact racist caricatures about African-Americans. At first, the audience is extremely uncomfortable with seeing this history of racism smack dab in the 21st century, but as time goes on they start to wear blackface themselves and enjoy the show. Our professor showed it to us at night, and my friend and I, who were in the same class, both walked in silence after the film, completely speechless. I couldn’t sleep that night. A year later I saw Do the Right Thing with a friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, this film does not shy away from depicting race relations at their most tumultuous. In his 2015 musical drama Chi-raq, he shows the emotional, psychological and social toll gun violence has taken on black communities in Chicago and adapts an ancient poetic Greek play to fit a grim 21st century reality of weapons, bloodshed and hurt. In the film, women withhold intimacy from men so that they stop promoting gun violence in their communities. Again, not an easy film to watch before bed, but it addresses a key issue. And before seeing all three of these films I watched Malcolm X after reading the autobiography for a summer English assignment. It still boggles me why Denzel never won the Oscar for that movie even though he got nominated for it, or why Spike never won an Oscar for that movie. It was incredibly powerful.
Which is why, when Spike Lee won for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars this year for BlacKkKlansman, I couldn’t stop squealing. Although his films have gotten numerous Oscar nominations, none of them actually won. And seeing his reaction at winning (as well as his purple Prince-themed suit and pants) was everything. His speech was also incredible. It has been a month since I have seen the film, but you can tell it’s had a huge effect on me because I can still finish this blog post about it without seeing the film again (it’s going to take me at least a year or two before I can see the film again). Overall, it is an incredibly brilliant film that is worth seeing.
BlacKkKlansman. 2018. Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.