I watched BlacKkKlansman a few nights ago. Briefly, it’s a film that tells a story that we need to hear. It’s a well executed film with some moments of artistic flair. It’s got a pithy script brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast.
Early on, there’s a really neat parallel of minimizing potential violence in the group that you more closely identify with. This theme continues, forming part of the central message. Ron (John David Washington) goes undercover to a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), who tells him, among other things, to get a gun. In the debrief, the other officers, all white, make a big deal out of this, but Ron thinks it’s just big talk. Later, Flip (Adam Driver) meets with the Klan pretending to be Ron, where he hears talk about a possible bombing attack. Similarly, Flip tries to downplay the seriousness of the threat, using almost the same language.
During Kwame Ture’s speech we see shots of the faces of the black people in the crowd. The faces show the sparks of inspiration firing as Ture talks along lines popularized by Malcolm X, the rhetoric imploring black people to refuse to play the game of self loathing imposed by the white world.
Flip has to face his own identity as a Jewish man while he pretends to be joining the Klan. Ron also faces an identity crisis as he develops a relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union, a group that detests police officers.
The critical sequence of the film is a concurrent following of events at two locations; the full ceremony of the Klu Klux Klan meeting and the meeting of the Black Student Union with Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). We cut back and forth between the two scenes, sometimes with Turner’s narration over the solemn rituals acted out by the hate group.
The climax is executed wonderfully, in a way that is at once dramatically satisfying and tragic. Ron tackles Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) after she’s planted a bomb on Patrice’s car. At the same time, two white police officers show up, see a black man accosting a white woman, and instantly make the wrong judgment. Only when Flip shows up do the officers listen and release Ron from custody. I feel like this might have been dramatically exaggerated from real life, but also that they could have gone much further; beaten Ron more severely, apologized profusely to Connie, even as her murder attempt is in progress.
But the good guys win, more from the baddies committing an own goal than from any direct intervention, but it’s clear that the investigation helped to thwart the Klan’s hateful actions throughout.
The end of the investigation, where Ron is instructed to destroy all his files and cease all contact with the KKK, is, in my opinion, the real tragedy. This is a gut punch to the heroes, turning their win into a Pyrrhic victory.
This is the message of BlacKkKlansman: these stories need to be told. We need to hear about these hate groups and what they are doing, what they’re capable of, and what methods they employ in recruiting. To neglect to tell these stories is to open the door to future extremists. The identity crises we see Ron and Flip (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the police force) go through are what we as a people need to do; we need to realize how much a part of us these hate groups really are.
Not long ago, I watched Oklahoma City on Netflix, a documentary about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The film gives a great amount of detail regarding the extremist right wing groups that helped spawn Timothy McVeigh. It also explains Waco as part of the inspiration for the attack. As I think back on my experience as a high school student when the news of this bombing broke, I don’t remember much being made of the extremist groups and their influence. Then again, I wasn’t paying much attention, being a dumb ass high school student.
The fact that this investigation was shuttered and all the reports shredded, represents the basic attitude of most Americans toward these hate groups. Their presence is not a blight on society so much as they are themselves society. We’d much plug our ears and go “lalalalalalala,” when it comes to these groups because to face their existence means to confront our racism in a way far too personal for most.
Think of the uber-patriotism that was abound in the aftermath of 9/11. We were all unified against a common enemy. Chief among that enemy’s attributes was that they were outsiders. There was no similar gung-ho feeling about hunting down the people responsible for OK City, especially when it was revealed that the calls were coming from inside the house, so to speak. The enemy, in that case, were Americans, fueled by an extremism that was American in character. True, there were a variety of differences in the two attacks that have nothing to do with who did it. To compare the two attacks is very much apples to oranges.
The film ends with real life scenes of Charlottesville, tying the above tragic covering up of this story to the outcomes that we’re seeing today. Membership in hate groups is surging as they haven’t in half a century. These groups didn’t go away, they just went underground. They cleaned up their image. David Duke (Topher Grace) talks about optics in the film, and today we have Richard Spencer and other alt right figures living up to that description.
Because this story wasn’t told 40 years ago, the hate groups got to rewrite their own narrative. They got to keep telling their twisted story to initiates in their living rooms, pool halls, and shooting ranges. And there was nothing to counter it.
Trump supporters and “enlightened centrists” will likely howl about the subtle and not so subtle nods to the current administration. Of note is Duke basically invoking the MAGA slogan, just slightly changing the words; in another scene, klansmen chant, “America First!” It’s a shame that most of that crowd will give this one a pass based on reviews and the plot synopsis. If there’s anyone that needs to hear what this film is trying to tell us, it’s the Trump supporter who insists that he (and it’s definitely a he) is not racist.