“All power to all the people!”
Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing)
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace
Academy Award for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay (2019)
Spike Lee is back and is back in a big way! Lee, who directed Do the Right Thing (1989), has always directed films that explore race in America and BlacKkKlansman is no different.
BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of a black American infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) enters the Colorado Springs Police Force in the 1970s and in an effort to prove himself decides to try to investigate ‘The Organisation’. Obviously, he can only talk to members on the phone and therefore recruits Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a fellow Jewish officer, to take his place at in person meetings. Together, they aim to takedown an organisation that is still running in the United States today.
Lee uses this film, not only to document and compare the issues of obvious racism such as the white supremacist groups in the 1970s and today, but also to explore the racism that has been seen throughout cinema history. The film begins with a cut from Gone with the Wind (1939), which shows the main character Scarlett O’Hara combing through the dead of the Southern states in the American Civil War with the confederate flag flying in the foreground. The film, which if inflation is considered, is still the highest grossing film in American history, is criticised for its racist stereotypes. The white people are noble and elegant, whereas the black characters are slaves without personal character outside of their duties. It also portrays the confederacy as defending ‘traditional values’ rather than pro-slavery.
The next film depicted is The Birth of a Nation (1915). This film is infamous for its racist content where the Klu Klux Klan are actually portrayed as heroes against the ‘unintelligent and sexually aggressive’ black characters. The film discussed later in BlacKkKlansman as it was showed at the White House for the president, Woodrow Wilson, is undermined by having Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Bladwin) muddle up his racist remarks as the film is projected onto his face.
Rapists, murderers, craving the virgin white..
Is it “virgin pure”?
This introduces the audience to the tone of the film and prepares them for what they will hear for the next few hours, as the content continues to be shocking and uncomfortable.
The film, The Birth of a Nation, is revisited in the scene where the Klu Klux Klan are initiating Zinnerman into their organisation, suggesting this propaganda-like film was still having a huge impact on the opinions and beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan into the 70s.
Lee also uses BlacKkKlansman to discuss the blaxploitation genre that started to arise in the 1970s. Blaxploitation films, although enabling black artists to be finally cast in the protagonist and/or hero roles, still portrayed these characters as criminals or at least as having questionable morals. The films often had themes where the protagonist overcomes white oppression, but as Lee points out in BlacKkKlansman, reality did not reflect that image:
It’s a black exploitation film, which is a fantasy. Real life’s not like that…in real life it’s just pigs killing black folks.
The film posters flash up on the screen, including those for Hitman (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973), Coffey (1973), Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), as the characters discuss them, breaking the flow of the film, but to remind audiences that the film is discussing real events and real films. The audience is reminded why these films were dangerous to the Black Power movement, when black Americans were fighting violent and dangerous stereotypes established in A Birth of the Nation;
Pimps aren’t heroes…That image does damage to our people.
Spike Lee himself, with Do the Right Thing, was at the forefront of the following wave of black cinema which criticised the blaxploitation genre for glorifying criminal behaviour. There is even Lee’s signature double dolly scene, where the characters appear to float down the corridor, reminding us that we are watching a Spike Lee film.
The film ends its staged content with a scene of the Klu Klux Klan lighting a cross on fire, a reminder that even though Stallsworth and Zinnerman brought down a few violent members, the organisation still exists and is making its presence and beliefs known, invoking fear in non-white, protestant communities.
The film, however, continues with a stark comparison to the modern day situation. Lee includes footage of events that occurred in 2017, which show members of the Klu Klux Klan and white supremacists forming a mob, flaming torches included, chanting:
Jews will not replace us!
The next scenes shows the President of the United States of America refusing to condemn the white supremacists for the racism and the violence that occurred during their protests and also includes the confronting, and gut wrenching footage of white supremacists driving a car through Black Rights protestors that are demanding safety for all Americans.
BlacKkKlansman is confronting and uncomfortable to watch but the message it sends is as important today as it was in the 1970s.
It challenges us to compare how black Americans are treated now as to then, and asks us, ‘Has anything really changed?’
It is important to note that the only actor nominated for an academy award for this film was Adam Driver. Yes, it was definitely deserved, but I think it speaks volumes as to how far America still has to go in regards to equality.
The film is as much about educating its audience as it is about entertaining, so make sure you are in the mood to be made uncomfortable, to question the world around you, but definitely, definitely hit play.