The Civil Rights Movement may seem like an issue of the past, but BlacKkKlansman makes it abundantly clear that the violent reality of racism is still alive and well today.
Using the classic Hollywood narrative arc of the hero’s journey, BlacKkKlansman explores the racial tensions of 1970s-America. Directed by Spike Lee, the plot follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington)—the first black police officer of Colorado—on his first undercover mission to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan, using fellow investigator Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his under-cover body double.
From there, we are simultaneously given insight into three intertwining worlds.
The first is the Colorado Police force where Stallworth attempts to establish a career—despite it being an environment of persisting racism.
The second world gives us insight into the KKK itself, where we are introduced to Grand Wizard David Dukes, who, dare-I-say, is adorably played by Topher Grace (you may remember him as Eric from That ‘70s Show). But don’t let Grace’s perpetual baby face charm you as it did me. Keep in mind he is portraying a white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, Holocaust denier and convicted criminal.
The third world is that of the local Black Power movement—a group mainly comprised of university students inspiring a revolution against police brutality.
It is intriguing to see how the film deals with the interaction of all three of these groups, which all share a long history of conflict with one another.
BlacKkKlansman is a film deeply concerned with identity. This is evident primarily through Stallworth, as he attempts to establish his place in the force while sympathising with the Black Power movement. In this historic moment, supporting one means denying the other. Zimmerman is also forced to question his Jewish identity as he infiltrates the KKK—although he no longer practices the religion, it is a part of his heritage and impossible to forget.
By the end of the film there is a sense that the narrative warrants resolution, and though the film comes to one that is light and satisfying, that unnerving sense continues. Instead of ending with a sense of finality—the better man wins and there is harmony between races—the movie ends with unease.
The film subverts the convention of resolution to reflect the lack of resolution with the Civil Rights Movement, a movement which is unfortunately still necessary today. I won’t say exactly how this is achieved … only that it is done simply and effectively.
As you’d expect from a Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman is highly visually and skilfully crafted—from its costumes, to his typical southern American setting, to the collage editing style.
The true genius of this film is that it somehow manages to deal with a dark moment in America’s history in an engaging and entertaining way, but it never underplays the magnitude of its subject matter. In fact, BlacKkKlansman turns up the volume on the dialogue surrounding civil rights and racism in the US that is very much needed today.
BlacKkKlansman is released to cinemas August 16.