The first image in BlacKkKlansman is a familiar one for most film fans. It’s that iconic longshot in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett looks for a doctor among a sprawling rusty red-dirt field of wounded Confederate soldiers that pans out to show a tattered Confederate flag waving above them. It reminds us that many men fought and died to keep black men in bondage. As slaves. And to this day some try to keep it that way.
The film’s story, crazy enough, is based on a fact. It centers on Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the Colorado Springs first black police officer. He and a small team work together to infiltrate a local KKK chapter. When initially making contact through an ad in the newspaper, Ron calls them up and uses his real name. A hilarious mistake in the moment. Obviously Ron cannot meet the members face to face, to he has fellow officer, Flip (Adam Driver) do that for him. Ron keeps making plans over the phone and Flip becomes Ron face-to-face. But the deeper they go the more dangerous it gets. When Ron and Flip learn of a possible threat to a local college’s black student union, shit gets personal and really real.
One of my favorite aspects of this film is that while it’s dealing with harsh racists ideals, it’s often comical, warm and inspirational. Seeing Ron talk on the phone with the head of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace), can be hysterical, especially seeing a black man end a conversation with, “God bless white America.” Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) is a hilarious personification of a slack-jawed racist idiot accidentally spilling details about the KKKs plans. The warmth comes from watching Ron’s budding relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), especially when they ask that all important question, “Shaft or Superfly?” And Kwame Ture’s speech scene has these amazing moments where we see the faces of the people listening, their black faces and afros shine against the black background like halos and it feels like they are hearing someone tell them to be proud to be black for the first time in their lives.
Adam Driver delivers a thoughtful and spectacular performance in this film, the best in his career so far, in my opinion. He’s a young Jewish police officer going undercover inside the KKK posing as Ron. It’s a lot of pressure, but he must remain cool. When he dismisses his Jewish heritage at first with Ron, it feels like self defense. But as he spends more and more time with Walter and the other KKK members, we can feel their constant hate rhetoric getting to him, especially when one accuses him of being Jewish. Driver performs this double life well and so convincingly, driving this film forward, even while Ron is running things in the background.
BlacKkKlansman is currently nominated for six Academy Awards including best adapted screenplay, film editing, original score and Best Picture. Spike Lee has received his first nomination for best director. And Adam Driver has earned his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
A scene that I cannot get out of my head is when Flip/Ron is being initiated into the KKK, while down the street the black student union is listening to an elder’s story about a young man on trial. David Duke and the other white men perform their ceremony with reverence for what their doing and then celebrate by watching Birth of a Nation, a silent film often used and referenced by white supremacists. While we watch this, we hear the old black man’s story about how his friend was found guilty for a crime he didn’t commit, then dragged into the street, tortured, mutilated and burned. And everyone came to watch “like it was the fourth of July.” The juxtaposition between these two things happening at the same time is astounding and speaks volumes about the opposing experiences of African Americans vs white men.
I would warn people seeking this film out because of it’s Oscar nominated status to use discretion. This film is packed full of the most vile hate speech I’ve ever heard and it can get to you, or worse, you can become numb to it after a while. The hateful, ignorant, bigoted, asinine things Walter (Ryan Eggold) and his KKK buddies say are absolutely awful, to think that there are people who actually think and talk that way is sickening. But Lee reminds us at the end that those people are still around in a graphic and gripping way using footage from the events in Charlottesville from 2017. It’s not for the faint of heart.
My brother and I discussed this film over the phone and for both of us, that ending with the upside down american flag fading to black and white brought the theaters to an uncomfortable silence. That’s the power this film has, that Spike Lee wields like a master. He sees this country’s racism and isn’t afraid to stare it back hard in its ugly face and make us deal with it.
“If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who?”