Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; based on Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Producer: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, and Shaun Redick
by Jon Cvack
It’s only after a career spanning over thirty years that Spike Lee seems to be getting the attention he deserves. As I was adding him to my director’s list I discovered nearly a dozen films, all well reviewed, that I hadn’t seen or even heard about. Clockers (1995), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1999), and Summer of Sam (1999) are all films as good and epic as anything produced by his peers. To think that the one of the few prolific African American filmmakers with equal talent as Tarantino, PTA, Wes Anderson, Spielberg, or the Coens is rarely mentioned when people mentioned their favorite filmmakers goes to show the implicit bias.
If there’s one thing that Trump is doing which I appreciate is that he’s pulling off the costume that racism hides behind. One protest sign summed it well in that while not all Trump voters are racist, many seem okay with the racist things Trump says. It’s giving rise to more people casually saying things that would be out of line just a few years ago. Just like Trump gets away with his offensive remarks by calling it a joke, the people do the same. They don’t actually mean that Stormy Daniels is a “dirty whore”; it’s just a joke. They didn’t actually mean to harm or scare the Latinos and Asian-Americans walking down the street by telling them to go back to their country; they were just drunk and playing.
Worse, is where the straight up racism or sexism comes out, especially here in Los Angeles, and you realize how much worse it should be elsewhere. I admired Obama and aspired to be as smart and engaged as he was. He was the greatest role model a student could ask for in college. Now flip that, in which the other side’s leader gets to laugh off his misogyny and racism as all just misunderstood and his supporters all follow right in line; no matter how many of the victims speak out. It’s bizarre and will have consequences for decades to come. Trump isn’t engaged enough to want to take over the world, but as I often say, imagine an evil genius who had the charm, realizing how far he could take the country in a particular direction and how half the country is willing to either go along with it. With climate change around the corner, it’s a terrifying thought. We already have serious problems, and growing up, I just never thought it’d be this country I’d have to worry about.
Next to Death of Stalin, this is the next post-Trump film to be made; exploring the history of race and racism in this country. It opens in the Civil War with a long, expansive shot of hundreds of wounded soldiers lying in the dirt while a woman cries, searching for her man, ending on the Confederate Flag which is still hanging. It’s one of the most powerful opening shots I’ve seen in awhile; especially when knowing what to expect from the story. Up until recently, and still do this day, we want to revere a nation that once held people in bondage to the point where half the country rebelled against the United States of America to defend the idea. For those of the “Pride Not Hate” defense, I’ve yet to hear a decent argument as to why this isn't analogous to putting up statues of Hitler and his generals over in Germany and celebrating Nazi pride.
The film opens up with rookie police officer and real life person Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) serving as Colorado Springs first black person on the force. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) warns him that his experience will be similar to that of Jackie Robinson. He’ll likely deal with a barrage of racist epithets from the other officers. Ron agrees and from such a strong intro, a lot of the momentum wore off at this point, as Lee remained in many scenes far longer than needed as we followed Ron from the filing room to private detective, which could have been punched up by one of Spike Lee’s signature montages. I understand that it was to demonstrate the Jackie Robinson-ness of the situation, but given where the story goes, I think it could have gotten there faster while proving the same points.
Eventually Ronald becomes an undercover detective, making his way to a black power rally, where he meets local college president of the black student union Patricia Dumas (Laura Harrier) who’s hosting true to life civil right activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins; and providing the film’s finest performance; up there with Viola Davis brevity in Doubt (2008) which won her an Oscar) in which he speaks of the plight of black people and the systemic racism they face; wrapping up the speech by declaring that it’s better to shoot a racist cop than the enemy in Vietnam; as he doesn’t know anything about the people in Vietnam, but he does know the oppressor he faces in this country. The rhetoric is alarming, and, at times, convincing. What is worse than a person whose job is to uphold the law who will then refuse to apply that law equally to all Americans?
Ronald presents his findings to the Chief alongside his partner Detective Fred Zinnerman (Adam Driver), who agrees that while the rhetoric was intense, it was nothing more than some heated language. Ronald instead directs his attention to the rise of some local KKK organizations that have been gathering around town. He gets in touch with one of the local leaders, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), using his best white man’s voice and convincing the klansmen to invite him to the rally. Knowing he can’t show up, he convinces Fred to act in his place. The joke is one of the most effective demonstrations of how racism can seep into even the most seemingly innocuous situations. Whites believe that black people talk a certain way, which they do, not all that differently than how black people can impersonate the way a white person talks; the issue is when you believe one tone is superior to the others; demonstrated in a hilarious scene where a conversation with David Duke leads to the man saying how much he resents when black people say you’re-a rather than just you’re; hilarious in that it’s not wrong, it’s just insane that someone would use something so inane as a contributing element to their violent bigotry.
Fred soon meets up with Felix, who in a thrilling scene, demands Fred get into his car in order to be driven to the a bar in middle of nowhere where he meets the organization’s leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and the third leg of their trio, Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Adam Driver provides a few great laughs, but given how few other actors I recognized (namely Pääkkönen and Eggold) I was wondering if doing the same for the character could have made it more effective. Adam Driver has such a distinct face and presence. Add the fact that he was in Star Wars and, at times, it was difficult for me to buy his ability to blend in at all times.*
Nevertheless, the character is fascinating as he integrates further and further into the organization, getting closer to David Duke while gaining the trust of Breachway who soon resigns from his leadership position; nominating Fred for the top position. All the while, Felix grows more suspicious of Fred, peaking in one of the film’s other great scenes in which Felix hooks up Fred up to a lie detector test in order to find out the truth about his potential racism. Pääkkönen’s creates one of the great villains of the 2010s; able to shift on a dime between a terrifying psychopath and a hilarious paranoid.
Soon the group leads Fred to meet David Duke (Topher Grace) who’s arriving in town to both meet the new Klan leader and to baptize the new chapter. Simultaneously, Felix’s wife is dropping off C4 explosives procured by some of the group’s active armed service members, which she plans on using to kill the black student union president. And this is all going on while Ronald is talking to David Duke to further investigate his arrival while Fred infiltrates further into the organization.
It all ends in a thrilling scene, as after Ronald arrives and chases down the wife, local police tackle him to the ground and beat him; forcing him to watch as the bomb blows. Some of the klan members die and the wife is arrested, but nevertheless, the police Chief receives orders to shut down the investigation and destroy all of the evidence. It’s so shocking and irrational, that although fact, it made the ending feel cheap; as though it was stranger - and far worse - than fiction.
As of finishing these thoughts up, it’s been a week since I watched the film and thought about the ending; in which Lee cuts to footage from Charlottesville and the feud between White Nationalists and Neo Nazis versus those who were protesting against it. Not knowing of the images, only a few days prior I had started Frontline’s “Documenting Hate” (2018) series about Charlottesville; showing images I had yet to see; of how nasty and heated it was before the car accident and how little the police sought to intervene. Lee used the terrible images we had all seen. Of the people crying and the car ramming through the people and the fighting in the streets; ending on a photo of the one victim who died, before ending on an upside downflag that turned to black and white. There was such vitriolic anger behind the images. I struggled between whether I thought they were too fueled by emotion rather than a specific statement
Writing this on Monday, August 26, 2018 Trump raised the flag back to full mast; disregarding the vast majority of the country in honoring the country’s most famous and acclaimed veteran, John McCain, Suddenly, after over a year of criticizing NFL players for disrespecting our military and veterans by taking a knee, they were quiet when Trump criticized on one of modern America’s greatest heroes. Either their hypocrites, or it’s not at all about the military, and is very much about race. By the very nature of refusing to understand what the players are taking a knee for, they are behaving in a racist manner. Such reasoning by extension requires that they do not understand; which by extension means they’re ignorant. What we now know is that it definitely wasn’t about the military.
Like most, I was shocked when Trump mentioned after Charlottesville that there were “very fine people on both sides”. Watching the images, yes - there have been far more tragic and gruesome deaths in our nation’s past, but to think that this exists today, after the country just had its first black president, makes you comprehend how far there is to go. And for the black community and other minorities, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have my fellow citizens hate for no reason beyond color or creed; enough to kill in cold blood. That is terrifying.
The concluding images are not so much of a bow as a warning. Serious things are happening and unless people demand justice, nothing is going to change. What was once a fringe group, now feels empowered to come out of the shadows, and once it gets corrected, it’s our duty to ensure that we never forget who they are or what they bring out. It’s where I’m most cynical, as coupled with mass shootings and further divisions, I wonder how it could ever end.
*Should note that this was written when I really only knew Adam Driver from Star Wars. I imagine revisiting would change this perspective.
BELOW: One of the best scenes of the flick
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