6. BlacKKKlansman (2018)
BlacKKKlansman is an exhilirating experience. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who successfully infiltrates the KKK with the help of a Jewish partner, it is funny, sharp, and angry. Its climactic moments are as edge-of-your-set intense as any action thriller you may see. This is the best Spike Lee joint in a long time.
It's also a giant middle finger waved at Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking but awful movie from the early days of cinema. Lee presents it at the very beginning as part of a prologue involving a man named Dr. Kennesaw Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) in a scene that is both hilarious and disturbing. We see scenes of that film being shown at a Klan meeting as a kind of historical document meant to rally the troops and justify their cause. The way Lee pairs comedic undertones with the grotesque realities of racism is a thrilling high-wire act to behold. What's interesting about the opening scene is that Beauregard is clearly a buffoon. He looks goofy and can't seem to complete a sentence without help. He spews nasty racial slurs and, by my sensibilities, is a ridiculous clown of a human. Why anyone buys what he is saying is beyond me. But, they do. They still do.
BlacKKKlansman is an evisceration of racism, both blatant and casual, through use of the police procedural. Set in the 70s, it gives us Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as the first black police officer in the history of the Colorado Springs department and pairs him with a Jewish partner named Flip ZImmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the KKK to stop a terrorist attack on black activists. However, it starts out with Stallworth in the records room. He is eventually asked by his boss to infiltrate that very black activist group for reasons that are racist in their own right. Stallworth sees an ad for the KKK during his assignment and learns of evidence of an attack. He calls the number for the and passes himself off as a white racist, spewing all sorts of horrible nonsense. That moment alone, a black man passing as a white one, is a loaded one. Look up racial passing and do a little research to see what I mean.
Stallworth is in, but he is represented in person by Zimmerman, who attends the meetings and reports back to Stallworth on what is occurring. It's interesting to see the way Spike Lee directs the Stallworth phone calls as comedy, while the Zimmerman scenes are more tense and deeply troubling. We worry he is going to be outed at any point and there are some deeply harrowing moments along the way that build toward the movie's astounding climax. I've included two clips below that demonstrate this dichotomy.
I love the way BlacKKKlansman presents these two men having to become something they despise (and despises them) in order to bring that something down. It is not shy or interested in making us comfortable. I find it difficult to not compare this movie with the Best Picture winner of Green Book, since they both came out in 2018. Green Book is safe entertainment that gives us all the usual comfort food about dealing with racism. I liked that movie, especially the performances of its leads. But, BlacKKKlansman is angrier and more visceral and means to provoke. It closes with footage of the Charlottesville protests, which led to the death of Heather Heyer, who was run over by a white supremacist. Green Book invites us to remember that we can all get along, a lovely sentiment. BlacKKKlansman reminds us that we have a very long way to go.