By the Grouch on the Couch
Obvious fact: Spike Lee is not subtle about the state of America’s race relations. Whether you agree with him or don’t, the man has made his opinion on the treatment of black people within the US damn clear for about 30 years. Hell, he says people call him the “angry black filmmaker.” Ten minutes on Reddit will tell you that’s the nicer version of what some people call him. BlacKkKlansman will not change that, because he’s clearly still black and angry.
And the movie’s a strong case that he’s justified in being that way.
Now, add in the fact that he’s got a true story like this and Jordan Peele producing and you have a recipe for a film that’s gonna piss a lot of people off. However, they’re the people who deserve to be pissed off.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He’s first sent to infiltrate a speech by Black Activist and creator of the “Black Power” movement, Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where he meets anti-police Black Student Union President Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who he begins to date. At the same time, he answers an ad in the newspaper conducting a recruitment drive for the Ku Klux Klan, talking to the members over the phone. With Jewish Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his surrogate for in-person meetings, Stallworth works his way into the organization, eventually striking up a fake friendship with David Duke (Topher Grace).
So, the movie definitely plays up the fact that a lot of the slogans which have resurfaced recently like “America First” and “Make America Great Again” were previously used by groups that were less than subtle about their racism and xenophobia. By that, I obviously mean the f*cking Klan. Granted “Make (insert country) Great Again,” and “(insert country/empire) First” could be derived from translations of a ton of cultural movements throughout history, but generally they were movements that were based on some form of intense discrimination. I’m sure there’s a cave painting somewhere that translates to “Eagle and Goat Tribe First.”
They also point out that the real success of the Klan was that it tried to suppress its more violent members, instead replacing the leadership with images of respectable-appearing people such as David Duke. Kudos to Topher Grace, his version of Duke is actually kind of charming. It’s believable that he could convince a group of violent racists that the real success of racism would come from making it more acceptable to the common people, by framing it under things like “crime statistics,” “red-lining,” or “drug use.” While many of the Klansmen are portrayed as completely insane or degenerate racists, it’s the ones that aren’t that are more intimidating, because they seem relatively reasonable when they’re talking, even trying to keep the others in check. The more insane ones at times seem almost cartoonishly over-the-top in their racist crusade, but, well, I’ve known people who are like that, so… can’t say it goes too far.
In a moment of balance, the movie also calls out some of the problems with the Black Power movement, by having some of the members completely reject Ron’s attempts to be a police officer as “being part of the problem,” despite the fact that he saves their lives and prevents the KKK from committing atrocities. Oh, and is a good police officer, something that everyone should support. But, of course, their criticism of him for being a police officer kind of pales in comparison to all the stuff that the Klan does.
One of the scenes that’s most interesting in the film is that they show a Klan initiation intercut with a telling (by Harry Belafonte, no less) of the 1916 Lynching of Jesse Washington, one of the most brutal acts of mob violence in US history. Jesse Washington, a black man, was found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering a white woman, then was dragged outside, beaten, stabbed, dismembered, castrated, burned alive, and hung. A crowd of ~10,000 people watched, including the Mayor, Police Chief, and a professional photographer, making it a well-documented event. Even if he was guilty (which the physical evidence did suggest), HE WAS TORTURED AND BURNED TO DEATH PUBLICLY. There should never have been a time when that was okay, but the event was more condoned because of the recent release of Birth of a Nation (a movie that puts a nice, positive spin on white supremacy and the Klan). Like I said, it’s a solid scene, reminding us of exactly how much we try to erase from our nation’s history.
The cinematography and soundtrack (with score by Terence Blanchard, who does many of Lee’s films) are amazing. The images of the cast looking directly into the audience are chilling, almost accusatory, and the effect is profound. The performances are all great, although special credit to Washington, who balances a lot of character traits within his portrayal.
Overall, it’s a solid film. It’s a little preachy, sometimes feeling like Lee’s dropping a moral anvil on your head, but, dammit, sometimes the anvil needs to be dropped. I recommend seeing it, but, *Spoiler alert* you do want to brace for the final shots of the film, because it moves from the movie to just news clips of the last 2 years, and… well, you will hear a f*cking pin drop from 3 theaters over as the credits start to roll.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews. If you want more from the Grouch on the Couch, maybe he’ll actually finish that piece he was supposed to publish 2 months ago.
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