Racism has increased exponentially in America and far-right ideologies are gaining popularity in Europe. Director Spike Lee, in his works, explores the ideas of race relations, emancipation of the black community and the role of art and cinema. His BlacKkKlansman (2018) is a testament to that. A young African-American rookie cop Ron Stallworth and his goal of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan is the major theme of the movie, reviews Manita Islam
SPIKE Lee’s latest joint ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is a biographical crime film based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. Set in 1972 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the film centres around a young African-American rookie cop, Ron Stallworth and his almost unachievable goal of infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter and taking them down.
As a fiercely political film-maker and documentarian, Lee has often, in his works, explored the ideas of racial relations, emancipation of the black community and the role of art and media, most particularly, cinemas, in the society. These are the central themes of this movie as well. Lee has never shied away from expressing his political views or biases to his audience and has not deterred from it here in BlacKkKlansman, as he appends a footage of the US President Donald Trump briefing about the Charlottesville Car Attack, passing a remark about the moral equivalence between the white supremacists and a group of peaceful protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trumps’ comments had horrified the nation and the tactical use of this footage in the end suggests Lee’s strong liberal leanings.
The 135-minute film begins with an aerial footage from Gone with the Winds and a racist, hate-filled PSA against the African American community, acted out quite ironically by Alec Baldwin. The film then moves over to the main plot. In Colorado Springs, Stallworth, an African American man is appointed as the first police officer of his race in the force and is promptly promoted to the intelligence team from the records room. The character of Ron, played by John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is charming but wry and emulates all the unrushed poise and the steady presence displayed in the acting style of his father. Noticing an ad in the local newspaper inviting applicants for the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, Ron impulsively calls the given number to register as a member and in the heat of the moment, gives away his real name.
On the other side of the town, an African American civil rights activist and a member of Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael is invited to give a speech at Colorado College. With the fears that his speech might provoke the peaceful African American residents of the town, the police chief sends Ron undercover to assess the crowds’ reaction to his speech. There, Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the ‘Black Student Union’.
They strike up a friendship and later, a romantic relationship, with Ron concealing his identity as a cop as both the African American community and the Klan despises the police and refers to them as ‘pigs’. As Ron and Patricia get closer, they discuss about their favourite characters from the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Back in the station, Ron contacts the headquarters of the Klan to expedite his membership and to his surprise, the call is received by the Grand Wizard David Duke himself. They strike up a friendship over the telephone and talk regularly, with Ron posing as a white man as he is proficient in both ‘jive’ and ‘King’s English’.
Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish co-worker of Ron is appointed to meet the Klan in the flesh in the guise of Ron, as he is a Caucasian. Flip is received warmly by the local Klan chapter. However, a particularly anti-Semitic member called Felix suspects him of being a Jew, equally hated by the Klan as the African Americans. As Flip proves himself to be a loyal follower of the Klan with regular racial inflective-ridden remarks, David Duke himself comes down to Colorado for his induction to the Klan. The Klan enjoys the screening of perhaps one of the most controversial movies of all times, The Birth of a Nation, hooting and hollering at the scenes of the brutal lynching of African Americans. Felix and a member called Ivanhoe create a bomb and appoint Felix’s wife Connie to plant it near the civil rights rally. Ron, present in the induction ceremony ironically as the protection detail to Duke, realises their plans and tips off the local police. Unable to plant the bomb in the rally due to police presence, Connie plants it under Patricia’s car, instead of in her mail-box.
Felix and Ivanhoe drive over to Patricia’s house, parked beside her car to detonate the bomb and subsequently die due to their close proximity to the bomb. Ron reaches the house and tackles Connie but is harassed by the police, even after disclosing his identity. Flip rushes to the scene and rescues Ron. Connie is arrested and the team is congratulated by the chief for their successful mission. However, he orders them to erase all evidences of the case.
In the final scene of the film, Ron and Patricia hear a knock in their door and through the hallway window discovers a flaming cross surrounded by hooded Klan members. This scene slowly changes to a more recent footage of the far-right Unite the Right rally with tiki-torches in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The footage is followed by another of the Charlottesville Car Attack, Donald Trump’s ‘on both sides’ remark and footage of David Duke’s reaction to the attack and Trump’s remark. Before the screen turns dark, a tribute to Heather Heyer, the victim of the car attack is seen on the screen and then an up-side down US flag as it fades into black and white.
The film was both a commercial and critical success earning around USD 93.4 million worldwide. It received a 96 per cent approval rating in Rotten Tomatoes and an IMDB rating of 7.5 out of 10. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and received the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in the 91st Academy Awards along with five other nominations. It also earned four nominations at the 76th Golden Globe Awards.
The performances of both John David Washington and Adam Driver were lauded. The film mostly garnered positive reviews from critics, however, some panned it for its erratic timeline and Lee’s signature haphazard narrative. According to Nigel Andrews from Financial Times, ‘BlacKkKlansman's determination to be everything for everybody — comedy/ melodrama, wish-fulfilment fable/awful warning — proves its unexpected, unconventional master-choice’.
The film repeatedly touched on the role of cinemas in contemporary life. It begins with a scene from Gone with the Wind, a profoundly racist movie and moves over to the scene of the screening of probably one of the most racist films in the history of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation. Just as the Klan members are seen rejoicing at the sufferings inflicted on the African Americans in the movie, even in reality, The Birth of a Nation had a profound effect on the ideological framework of the country and encouraged the public to be openly racist and violent towards the African Americans to prevent the miscegenation of the United States.
The film brought on the second revival of the Klan in 1915, presenting them as a heroic force and the African Americans as a sexually aggressive and unintelligent race. The Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s also come into the frame after the playful conversation between Ron and Patricia. These movies created a negative stereotype of the African American community as a crime-ridden, aggressive race with a penchant for sex and violence. It is likely that Spike Lee created this film with the intention to arouse a similar change in the public ideology towards the African Americans, but this time in a more positive light.
The overlap between the socio-political situation in the movie and the political climate of current USA cannot be overlooked. The Trump campaign regularly uses many phrases which have roots in the Ku Klux Klan, the most famous being ‘America First’, which was the motto of the Klan. The movie contains many remarks about making America great again and taking America back to its previous glory; with many of these remarks being constantly used by the Trump government and his followers.
Racism has increased exponentially in America ever since Donald Trump has come into power. The tactics of seeping racism into average Americans by sweeping it under more pressing issues like immigration and tax reform are mentioned in the film, very similar to what seems to be happening at the US and many Caucasian countries around the world including the UK. Racial intolerance has surged globally and nationalistic ideals and fascism have taken precedence in many parts of the world. The increasing popularity of the Klan in the US in the recent times is a testament to the fact that if the divisive rhetoric of racism is conveyed from within the system, it could overpower and taint the lives of average citizens of a country.
In the immediate context of our country, the fact that Bangladesh is remarked to be under an authoritarian government, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung, an independent German organisation, could be a terrifying groundwork for the surge in fascist, nationalistic and racially intolerant ideologies in the future.
Spike Lee’s latest instalment of a didactic motion-art, BlacKkKlansman addresses racism from within and prompts the audience to consider whether the fight against racism should be from inside the system, outside the system or simply smashing it to pieces.
Manita Islam is a student of University of Dhaka.
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