Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, has all the necessary elements to become a success and it will most likely receive several Oscar nominations. The film is relentlessly funny, it has an interesting story full of conflict and it deals with a subject that is more important than ever. Yes, it is a film about racism in America. But it sure is more than that. Spike Lee makes a very clear stance in his new film; he criticizes the deeply problematic core of the American society and its political situation, showing that even after so many struggles and movements for the black community, the country reeks of discrimination and injustice, unable to overcome its heavy racist past.
The film is loosely based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a rookie police officer, who is the only African American officer to work in Colorado Springs during the seventies, 1972 to be precise. His passion and ambition to become a good cop will lead him to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan by pretending he wants to join the organization. Not only will he manage to establish a relationship, over the phone, with the members of KKK, but he will become the leader’s (David Duke) favorite member. While Ron is creating trust between him and the KKK, his colleague, Flip Zimmerman is the one who goes undercover, pretending to be Ron. Flip will have to attend meetings and prove that he is a dangerous bigot, worthy of a KKK membership.
The story might be set in the 70s, however, its message expands to today. The film foregrounds KKK’s irrational racism only to create a continuum of unstoppable fanaticism that relates to what happens today. In the film, the past and the present are juxtaposed, while history and fiction are merged together with the sole purpose to show how America’s political and social realities have barely changed during the last decades. Instead, America seems to be moving backward, to old and dangerous political methods that jeopardize the country’s identity and well-being. The similarities the Trump administration shares with the KKK’s beliefs are too many to ignore, and are, frankly, very frightening. Spike Lee knows this very well.
While BlacKkKlansman is deliberately a funny movie, Spike Lee treats the important moments of the story with respect. Those moments are always foregrounded and they receive the attention and care that they deserve. For example, when Ron decides to infiltrate the KKK by making that very first phone call, Spike Lee uses a Dutch angle shot, only to maximize the moment’s dramatic importance. Similar foregrounding occurs when the black student association realizes their power for change, or when the KKK reveals its delusional racist schemes. The examples are countless.
BlacKkKlansman is electrifying and it has the ability to stir many feelings, mostly those of rage and disappointment. Let me describe one of the most powerful sequences in the movie: the KKK is having an initiation ritual that is followed by the screening of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), an event that is juxtaposed with the gathering of the black student association where Jerome Turner, (played by Harry Belafonte) is telling the chilling story of the black man who was falsely accused and brutally murdered in the hands of the police. The juxtaposition of the two groups is so immensely powerful, that you will feel chills all over your body. I know I did.
As mentioned before, BlacKkKlansman is undoubtedly a hilarious movie. It consists of jokes, punch lines, and ridiculous representations of the KKK. It also includes a main character who, beyond his funny exterior, is capable of showing his deep identity struggle. During a scene with Patrice, the fearless president of the black student association, Ron starts a discussion about DuBois, the civil rights activist, and sociologist who first talked about the notion of ‘double consciousness’. This notion refers to how it feels to be American and black, two identities in one body that only collide with each other (double consciousness was a prominent concept in America during the 20s when the Harlem Renaissance thrived). While Ron and Patrice share their thoughts on the matter, they both feel different about it. Ron feels divided between his black identity and his American one, mostly due to his guilt of choosing to become a police officer. Patrice, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way. For her, there is no double consciousness; to be black and to be American are one unified identity, exactly how it should be.
As said before, the film is penetrated by intense juxtapositions. Scenes with one group screaming ‘black power’ and the other group screaming ‘white power’, are strongly juxtaposed to show that hate can only divide the two groups. And hate becomes a threat when people act on it. However, the people who protest shouting ‘black power’ are the ones whose outrage is more than justified. The other group’s voice, though, represents an irrational racist attitude that still seems to be very popular these days. The KKK is ridiculed and its members are presented as caricatures, however, the film never forgets to show how dangerous they can become, always scheming sinister plans to undermine the black community. It is scary to see how similar the KKK tactics seem to be with the ones of the current American government.
Since, BlacKkKlansman‘s screening in Cannes and after its official distribution to the rest of the world, the heated discussion around the film continues. BlacKkKlansman has received mostly positive reviews, however, it has also received some serious criticism. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has strongly criticized Lee’s latest film. In his article on Aljazzera, professor Dabashi calls Spike Lee’s view on racism as “out of touch”, while he states that the director focuses on satisfying the liberal Obama audiences who can only laugh at the KKK caricatures, without recognizing how their own actions have led to the current Trump reality. The criticism towards the film expands further, calling the representation of the black community as “cartoonish” who “exude a fanatical obsession with the race”, a comment that, while it holds some truth, it is too polarized in its own totality. With a subject so serious and more timely than ever, that of racism, no one can ever be happy with how it is presented in a contemporary film. There will always be people who feel dissatisfied, offended, and even insulted by small or big things that don’t represent reality or don’t cover every possible side of a story. Let us not forget that this film is made for the entertainment business, that it aims to first entertain and then make a stance, the way Spike Lee felt was necessary. A film cannot solve the issue of racism in two hours or discover its roots, and the suggestion that it should is simply ridiculous.
Beyond the film’s criticism, Spike Lee’s ability to make Ron Stallworth’s story funny, witty, deeply political, and brutally critical at the same time, is striking. The film’s message is undoubtedly its condemnation towards the current American political situation. Lee has been very outspoken about the Trump administration and its (not so) hidden racism. But above all, the most important feature of BlacKkKlansman is the universality of its subject and its message that racism is worth fighting for.