BlacKkKlansman: A Questioning (and Questionable) Take on the KKK and Systemic Racism
By Keyanna Wigglesworth
The knee-jerk laughter of the predominantly white theatre audience throughout BlacKkKlansman was a harrowing sign of how much this story needed to be told right now. When Donald Trump was elected president, I was certainly shocked. However, I was more so shocked by the defeat of the incumbent Hillary Clinton than the victory of an abhorrent bigot. Whether it was my neighbors calling the cops on my family whenever we hosted cookouts or living in a “melting pot” city that was still very much segregated due to redlining, I grew up acutely aware of America’s deep-seated racism. I cannot say the same for the majority of my white counterparts. The same privileged incredulity with which they reacted to Trump’s election is what caused so many white viewers of BlacKkKlansman to guffaw at scenes in which the characters used racial epithets. It is the flawed belief that America is so far removed from the days in which the Ku Klux Klan’s influence reigned supreme that a movie about the terrorist organization is more of a comedic, rather than reflective, interpretation of our current sociopolitical climate. Despite the irony that a film seeking to expose America’s racist past and present has, for some moviegoers, negated the responsibility of confronting those hard truths through its use of comedy, BlacKkKlansman is still one of the best films of this year.
In her 1979 essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, womanist writer and activist Audre Lorde rejects the notion that people of marginalized backgrounds can use the power of academia -- or any other institution with roots steeped in capitalism and oppression -- to liberate their communities. It is incredibly fitting that BlacKkKlansman, set just a few years earlier, addresses this very struggle. As a Black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) lives in a double consciousness wrought by his personal and professional worlds. It is not only his job, but his passion, to champion law enforcement as the most effective system through which justice is achieved, particularly for victims of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs. Yet, he, his love interest, Patrice (Laura Herrier), and Black people, in general, suffer from racial discrimination and violence at the hands of the police state. What makes Patrice the most compelling character in the film is her constant challenging of Ron’s police-positive ethos by giving voice to the state-sanctioned brutalization of Black bodies. However, her grassroots approach of working outside the confines of institutions to combat systemic racism also does not provide a full-proof solution. Much like how we watched Patrice’s sexual assault by an officer happen directly after the Kwame Ture rally, we watch the police murder young Black women and men month after month -- sometimes week after week -- despite the multitude of protests and rallies that follow each tragedy. Presented with the reality that neither the master’s tools nor the tools of the oppressed alone are always enough to eradicate institutional racism, Ron is a painfully honest representation of the uncertainty that some of us are faced with when deciding how we will seek our liberation.
In addition to highlighting the struggles within Black resistance, the film unflinchingly depicts white supremacy and its many contributors, even those outside of the 1970s KKK. Ron’s fellow officers at the Colorado Springs police department kept a known racist on payroll and threw out the investigation of the Klan at the end of the film. Felix’s wife and the countless other white women at the Klan initiation were avid supporters of hate crimes, despite being historically viewed as innocent bystanders. The ending montage of images from the 2017 Charlottesville riots shows us that white nationalistic violence is not singular to the past. Although not nearly as egregious as the aforementioned Klan co-conspirators and apologists, even Flip participates in the aiding and abetting of white supremacy through his prolonged reluctance to participate in the investigation of the KKK. However, the scene in which civil rights activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts the 1916 murder and bodily mutilation of Jesse Washington by a 10,000-strong lynch mob is perhaps the hardest part of the film to watch because of its unabashed exposure of white supremacy’s mass influence. The crescendo of Terence Blanchard’s “Tale of Two Powers” playing in the background as we listen to a cinematic legend describe the type of heinous crimes that first inspired his own activism almost 60 years ago brings an elevated level of poignancy to the scene and film overall. Some may argue that the Charlottesville montage made for BlacKkKlansman’s most gut-wrenching moments, due to the freshness of the horrifying event -- including the tragic death of Heather Heyer -- in our memories from just one year ago. Still, I would argue that the monologue on Jesse Washington’s murder was even more crushing because it reveals the violent precedent that white supremacy set in this country long before the Charlottesville riots. If the virulent racism that caused Washington’s murder could go unpunished for an entire century, it is no surprise that those same hateful beliefs could result in the death of another innocent person today.
However, oddly enough, this scene doubles as the film’s best and worst scene. The rapid back-and-forth cutting between Jerome Turner and David Duke’s speeches was skillful in that it elevated the intensity of their words by simultaneously showing images of their opposition. Unfortunately, the scene lost a great deal of its value when the juxtaposition of the Black Student Union and the Klan turned into a basic comparison. Synchronizing the shouting of “Black Power” and “White Power” created a weird, All Lives Matter tone that insinuated hate mongers’ racist beliefs are on par with Black students’ pride in their resilient history. The vileness of the KKK was affirmed throughout the film. So, it was both off-key and irresponsible to almost void that messaging by having the hate group share the last words — and, subsequently, lasting effect -- of the scene with a group of Black students.
Another weakness of the film was the character development of some of the second-tier roles. BlacKkKlansman exemplified the utter ignorance and insecurity behind racism through pathetically delusional characters like Felix and his wife. While those characters served a clear purpose, the incredibly idiotic Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) – with his mouth agape whenever he was not spouting stupid one-liners -- was overkill. Even more unfortunate is Odetta’s (Damaris Lewis) trope-ish character. There is an important conversation currently taking place in Hollywood about the need for more diversity in films, specifically more women protagonists. Although Patrice fills a supporting role, it was refreshing and powerful to see a Black female lead use her intelligence to actively contribute to the deeper messages of the story. While I was not expecting an equally intricate story arc for Odetta, as she is a small role, it was disappointing to see her only be the stereotypically sassy dark-skinned best friend. Hollywood has historically relegated darker-skinned Black women, especially those with kinkier hair or prominent African facial features, to sidekick roles in the shadows of lighter-skinned or ethnically ambiguous women. It was especially disheartening to see this film -- and filmmaker in particular -- affirm cinema’s obsession with Eurocentric notions of beauty and poise by using Odetta’s character for nothing more than a few snarky lines that would only amplify Patrice’s good-natured light-skinned female archetype in comparison.
Despite the widespread commercial and critical praise, BlacKkKlansman -- as well as Spike Lee as a leader in the Black creative community -- has received its fair share of backlash. Rampant police brutality against unarmed Black bodies is one of the most important issues facing our nation, so it is not unreasonable to dismiss a movie centering a cop’s perspective. I also do not advocate for Lee’s outdated politics and cringe at how it sometimes translates into his recent films. However, it is worth recognizing that, in addition to rebuking anti-Black racism, he also uses storytelling -- through movies like School Daze and She’s Gotta Have It -- to discuss intra-racial matters within the Black community, such as colorism and sexuality. The fact that BlacKkKlansman is able to do both in an emotionally riveting, yet comedic way is a testament to the cinematic prowess that Lee has retained over his long career and the imprint it has made on this year’s bevy of films.