Beware! Spoiler alerts for "BlacKkKlansman" follow.
There’s a reason why the Spike Lee movie “Black Klansman” — or, more technically “BlacKkKlansman” — came out last weekend.
It was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville that turned violent and left one counter-protestor dead — with two state police officers dying later in a helicopter crash.
The timing isn’t the only connection between the movie, which was among the top-grossers at the box office last week, and Charlottesville. As dramatic as the movie is (more on that to come), the biggest dramatic punch comes after the Hollywood part of the movie is over and the film concludes with actual video footage from the Charlottesville march.
The movie spends most of its 135 minutes showing the Ku Klux Klan as small band of fringe characters. Sometimes they’re comical. Sometimes they’re dangerous. But throughout they are always small in number and lurking in the shadows, afraid to express their racist views in public.
Suddenly here’s actual footage of thousands of white supremacists —some affiliated with the Klan, some affiliated with other groups just as vile — marching openly in the streets of an American city. It’s a gut-punch, as Lee surely knew it would be. It’s a gut-punch that’s not lessened in the least by the fizzle of the follow-up march in Washington, D.C., last weekend. The events last year in Charlottesville showed us that these white nationalists are out there. That reality is scarier than any of the fictional scenes Lee invented for the movie.
So let’s talk about that movie, which is surely the most political film of the year, and yet isn’t necessarily a partisan one.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who in the 1970s managed to infiltrate a local chapter of the Klan. To that extent, the movie dutifully tracks his memoir, “Black Klansman.” Stallworth really did see an ad in the local paper seeking Klan members. (Let us be clear; we can’t imagine a paper today that would accept such an ad.) Stallworth called the number, pretended to be white, and arranged a meeting with the local organizer. A white officer went undercover in his place and for the next nine months they monitored what the Klan was up to. At one point, Stallworth really did have a phone conversation with Grand Wizard David Duke, who really did promise to expedite the processing of his membership card. In the movie, John David Washington (the son of Denzel Washington) plays Stallworth and Adam Driver (who played Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars movies) plays the white officer. From there, the movie diverges from real life. The actual events took place in 1979; the movie back-dates them to 1972, although it’s unclear why. The movie is also a lot more dramatic. In reality the Klan chapter that Stallworth and his unidentified white partner infiltrated wasn’t up to much. In the movie, some of the Klansmen take a violent turn and plan to bomb a civil rights rally. That’s Hollywood. There are fast cars, guns and things that go boom.
There’s also a lot of uncomfortable language. The movie is mercifully light on the usual litany of bad words that one hears in movies these days. It is quite graphic, though, in how the Klansmen describe African-Americans and pretty much anyone who isn’t white and Protestant. There’s no real way around that, and Lee doesn’t flinch at using words that should never be said.
This is not a movie that relies on nuance. When characters in 1972 talk about their desire to make America great again and “America First,” it’s clear they’re really talking about 2018. Those are also phrases that the screenwriters say they lifted directly from Duke’s speeches.
There’s a scene where one character is explaining how Duke is trying to take the Klan mainstream and inject its hateful values into the political mainstream. Duke wears a suit, not a robe and hood, at least not in public. He calls himself “national director,” not Grand Wizard, even though he is that, too. He talks about a wide array of what seems to be perfectly conventional issues — immigration, tax cuts. The Stallworth character laughs this off. “America isn’t going to elect David Duke as president,” he says. It’s pretty clear what Lee’s message is: It didn’t have to. It elected Trump instead.
There are other politics that are quite clear to those who understand the words. One character refers to “super-predators.” That’s clearly a reference to something Hillary Clinton said in 1996 when she gave a speech supporting her husband’s proposed crime bill and made some comments about gangs that have still resonated, the wrong way, with some: “They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.” Trump needled Clinton about the line in 2016; Lee does so again in this film.
Lee also teaches some history. There are scenes replayed from the 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation.” One character, played by Harry Belafonte, describes Woodrow Wilson’s embrace of that movie, which some credit with helping revive the Klan. All that is true. The Staunton-born Wilson managed to be both a liberal and a racist at the same time, which shows just how complicated history can be.
Still, this movie is mostly just a movie until it shows the actual footage of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and Trump’s infamous news conference where he talked of “very fine people on both sides.” Then it goes from being entertaining to being visceral.
Liberals would certainly love this movie. The question is: Would conservatives? We’d like to think they should. The hero of this movie is not necessarily a liberal — he’s a law-and-order police officer who is regarded suspiciously by civil rights activists. And the bad guys of this movie are not conservatives. They are bigots. The problem, as Lee shows quite vividly, is that the president of the United States has adopted some of their language. That ought to alarm conservatives most of all. Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism risks poisoning the classic conservatism of limited government and low taxes.
You know who else should like “BlacKkKlansman”? Sunday school classes. Lee hasn’t just delivered a movie. He’s served up a moral lesson for America, at least for anyone willing to see this film and talk about it afterwards.