BlacKkKlansman is not an extension of the old Dave Chapelle comedy skit where blind white supremacist Clayton Bigsby is blissfully unaware he’s not white. No, BlacKkKlansman is the largely real-life story of former Colorado Springs police detective Ron Stallworth, who is made painfully aware that he’s not white but nevertheless colorfully pulls off an audacious undercover coup. Stallworth is a black man who becomes a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan—even rising to chapter president—in order to take down the organization and thwart their plans for an attack on minorities.
If BlacKkKlansman was just a retelling of Stallworth’s story, it would have been unbelievable enough. But Spike Lee aspires to much more than that—he uses Stallworth’s experiences from 1978 to draw a subtle-as-a-wrecking-ball parallel to racism in Trump Administration America. BlacKkKlansman is unflinchingly unsparing in its use of racial epithets and four-letter words in its attempt to show how racism has been as much a part of the American fabric as apple pie and baseball—following a thread from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the 1915 silent movie credited with reviving the Klan, to the rash of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and to the ugly incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you thought Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House in 2009 was proof that racism is dead, Lee says, Donald Trump’s rise in 2017 was its toxic resurrection. The movie’s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, scant months after Trump took office.
Lee has been scathingly critical of Trump, including an expletive-laden denunciation of the president at May’s Cannes Film Festival. He channels his fury into a movie that takes Stallworth’s 2014 book Black Klansman and splices bits of humor and caricatured villains into a story that might be funnier if the underlying disturbing reality wasn’t so serious. The movie shows jarring footage of drivers using their cars to run over protesters and pays tribute to Heather Heyer, a young white woman who was tragically killed that way at a Charlottesville protest.
Stallworth is portrayed by John David Washington (sounding exactly like his father, Denzel, who starred in Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X). He responds by phone to a Klan classified ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper (remember, this is 1978 and predates Caller ID and Craigslist) and eventually connects with white nationalist David Duke (Topher Grace, who does his best to play against type established by his That 70’s Show character, Eric Forman, but never really pulls it off). Despite the colossal blunder of using his real name, Stallworth says enough of what the Klan wants to hear. Since he obviously can’t pass for white in person, Stallworth sends a white police officer (Adam Driver), who also happens to be a KKK target because he’s Jewish, to meet with those recruiting new members.
That’s the springboard for a movie that Lee clearly intends to provoke thought, discussion and a repudiation of all that he sees Trump standing for. The subject matter is worthy of enduring discussion—you can’t fix a problem you don’t acknowledge—but the way the story is told raises way too many language and violence red flags to qualify for Dove approval.
The Dove Take
Racism isn’t dead or acceptable, and Spike Lee is determined to wake his viewers up to that reality. This movie is meant to provoke them, as Malcolm X famously said, “By any means necessary.”