Approximately one year ago, I found myself tasked with the responsibility of standing in front of my Freshman Orientation class and attempting to explain to them the then-recent events of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was Current Events Day in the curriculum, and each Freshman Orientation teacher was asked to discuss the most relevant current events for our particular section – the most helpful. I was co-teaching a section that was comprised entirely of international students. My co-teacher was also international and so it was left to me to attempt to help all of them process what had happened in Charlottesville, why, and how. Explaining what happened was reasonably straightforward; explaining why or how a supposedly civilized “melting pot” of a country could see such hate-fueled events occur on its soil – and within a short drive from our campus . . . well, that was much more difficult. I had to tell them that not everyone felt the way these perpetrators felt, but that enough people do that they were almost certain to encounter some of them, even on our very campus. The more I talked, the more embarrassed by and ashamed of my country I felt – and I, like most Americans, had already been feeling that way for some time, anyway.
Spike Lee has quite a resume, with plenty of classic films to his name. Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, and Do the Right Thing still carry legacies of their own and Lee hopes to add to that legacy with his newest film centering on race relations, BlacKkKlansman. Lee has released some low-profile films over the last few years (the last of which I personally saw being his 2014 remake of Old Boy starring Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Brolin) but this one has the potential to garner a lot of attention and thrust the filmmaking legend back into the spotlight where he belongs. Lee returns to form to bring to the forefront the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, “Ballers”), the African-American police officer who infiltrated the Colorado Springs, Colorado, chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The film is based on Stallworth’s own book Black Klansman, which is, of course, his personal memoir of the experience. In the film, Stallworth is assisted by fellow police detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), as Stallworth can’t exactly meet face-to-face with the KKK. Here, Zimmerman is portrayed as Jewish, which can’t be corroborated as being applicable to his real-life counterpart, but in making that creative decision, Lee not only gives Zimmerman extra stakes within the narrative, but also represents perspectives of other persecuted groups in addition to the black community. It’s a wise choice that takes extra measure to frame this conflict as what it is: not black versus white, but right versus wrong.
Along those same lines, Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) portrays Stallworth’s love interest and local student activist, Patrice Dumas. Patrice is a creation for the film but represents some of the shades of grey in the whole situation – not regarding the KKK (duh. Anybody with sense knows that there aren’t fine people on both sides of that fight, right?), but regarding how to know who is truly fighting the good fight. It’s a point of view worth addressing, which Lee and Harrier do with heartbreaking authenticity. The cast, as a whole, are at their very best, including those portraying the villains, such as Topher Grace, who bravely assumes the role of David Duke. He and the other actors who portray the various members of the KKK are so convincing that it will be tempting to carry the resentment for their characters over to the actors, themselves. It’s clear that everyone involved in the production believes strongly in equality, love, and what America is supposed to represent.
In addressing these issues with this particular narrative, Lee’s storytelling approach is remarkably restrained. He steps back as much as possible, allowing the actors and their words tell each of their stories. There’s no need to throw in Hollywood exaggerations, no point in making it overly theatrical. That would not only be insulting those who deal with this kind of hate every day, but it would also undermine the very nature of the material. Lee makes sure it all plays very real because, if it doesn’t, the effect and message are lost. The actors aren’t giving over-the-top, melodramatic, hyper-emotional performances. There aren’t crazy action sequences. This is down-to-earth, gut-punching truth. It must have been tempting to scream the message from the mountaintops – heck, it’s tempting for me to do it, now, and I’m on the outside looking in – but Lee is a better filmmaker than that. The work speaks for itself.
Sadly, it’s likely preaching to the choir. Those who have the most to gain by being exposed to this story are the ones who will avoid it at all costs. Still, the film is a poignant reminder that the struggle – whether it be for you, specifically, or for your friends – is, as they say, real. And, even though it’s been brought back to the surface by the results of the 2016 election, it’s not new. We thought America had changed for the better over the last few decades. We were wrong. So, on that note, not only does Lee remind us that the battle is ongoing, but he also makes the point that it’s quite frankly the new normal. It’s in the White House. At the very top. And it’s completely re-energized. They justify it; they hide behind their religion, they hide behind their politics, they hate, they hurt, and, through it all, they sleep very well at night.
So, no, BlacKkKlansman frustratingly won’t make much of a difference to the world at large. It won’t help the smugly contented bigots of the world understand that Black Power is about equality while White Power is about superiority. (They know that, already; but acknowledging it would negate their unearned righteousness.) But it does provide an extra boost of resolve for those who might need it and it does so with the potential of earning awards come January and February. It’s unfortunate that the film tells a story that took place in the 1970s, yet is somehow even more topical now than ever, but it’s a great option for adults who want intelligent and entertaining cinema. If you say that’s you . . . prove it. As for me, I once again have the international section of our university’s Freshman Orientation program under my care. It’s a responsibility I take seriously. And, in doing so, I dread what I may have to discuss with them come this year’s Current Events Day.
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