From the very first shot, BlacKkKlansman made me feel like a terrible human being, and that’s why it is the best movie of the year.
Let me explain.
Spike Lee, the auteur provocateur who would be an icon in film history even if he had only directed the seminal Do the Right Thing, has a knack for confronting the racist structures of society. This is what makes Spike so great, and so difficult, is that he has a way of challenging the idea that racism no longer exists by forcing us to implicate ourselves in supporting racist practices. Case in point: BlacKkKlansman is in part a brilliant film because it highlights how the film industry that Spike is a part of has been propping up racist stereotypes and ideas throughout film history.
BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (played with gusto by John David Washington, son of frequent Spike Lee collaborator Denzel Washington), a man who becomes the first African American police officer in Colorado Springs in 1979. At first, Ron is sent to be undercover within the burgeoning civil rights community in the town, but after seeing that his talents for police work would be better spent on infiltrating truly dangerous organizations, he calls up the Ku Klux Klan and starts an operation where he infiltrates the Klan. Much of the humor of the film comes from Ron and other police officers laughing at the Klan (represented by David Duke, played quite effectively by Topher Grace) for not realizing that he is in fact black. Ron decides to go undercover in the Klan, with fellow police officer Flip playing Ron in person for the Klan (played by Adam Driver, who is brilliant and Oscar nominated for this role; it’s a little strange that this movie only got an acting nomination for the white guy, but I digress).
The problem with Spike is that his films, while important and always interesting, are often difficult to watch because of the indictment of the audience. Even Do the Right Thing is hard to get through in recent re-watches because it is so confrontational and uncomfortable. What is truly brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it is all of those things (thoughtful, provocative, challenging) but it is also entertaining and thrilling. The humor is not just there for a quick aside either; it is important to the main themes of the movie. The Klan is shown as a ridiculous organization, and is openly ridiculed by all the white police officers as a kind of harmless crazy. This attitude leads to them underestimating a dangerous organization, and those themes are clearly present in the current politics of today (those Charlottesville Nazi protests are directly referenced). The film combines all the humor mentioned above with some truly tense scenes of the Jewish Flip trying to hide amongst evil, all culminating in a brilliant tie to the present day in a way that I won’t spoil here. All of this to say that this movie truly deserves the top prize at the Oscars.
But let’s go back to the beginning of this article: what really elevates this movie? How does this film uniquely highlight the film industry’s flirtation with racism? The obvious example is in an extended sequence late in the movie where Harry Belafonte talks to a group of civil rights activists about the 1915 D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, which was the very first feature film ever created and is also an abhorrently racist film that praises the KKK as saviors and heroes. Belafonte rightly points out that the embrace of this work by the film community, and by society as a whole (it was screened at the white house!), is incredibly problematic to say the least. Belafonte talks about how the film brought about a renaissance of the KKK and enabled racists for decades, and his scene is cross cut with the despicable KKK characters laughing and enjoying a movie that celebrates lynching and murder of African-Americans.
The sad, sorry history of Birth of a Nation’s place in film cannon is well documented and important to discuss, but what really blew me away about BlacKkKlansman is how it implicated another film that is still often praised as the best movie ever made: Gone with the Wind. The opening image of BlacKkKlansman is a scene from that often celebrated classic, and features a technical marvel of a shot that pans over a battlefield during the Civil War. The scale of this shot is astounding, especially for 1939; the amount of extras alone without the use of CGI is quite a feat. The shot is often called one of the greatest shots in film history by many film critics and historians, and I myself have been known to praise this shot for the technical marvel it is.
One thing that shocked me upon watching BlacKkKlansman is that the final image of this lauded and amazing shot is that of a confederate flag, a symbol of intolerance that many still display as a form of “southern pride.” The fact that this iconic shot is marred with the image that symbolizes a war that was fought so that one group of people could own another group of people really rocked my world. I thought to myself, “How could I have celebrated this? Am I responsible for perpetuating racist imagery for the sake of ‘celebrating good art’? How many other times have a let a work of art slip and explained it away as “problematic” just because a white guy made a technically well crafted move?”
This reckoning about my responsibility as a film critic, even an amateur one, is what really stuck with me after watching this movie. There are no passive observers, and no film is apolitical; every piece of art has an angle, a point of view, a form of politics, from what it celebrates to what it indicts. BlacKkKlansman attempts to point this unfortunate aspect of art out to an audience, while entertaining them at the same time, and in 2019, this is the movie that the academy needs to celebrate. If this movie loses Best Picture to Green Book, a movie where white Viggo Mortenson teaches Mahershala Ali how to be black and “solves racism,” it will only prove how needed the message of BlacKkKlansman truly is.