Spike Lee Provides Vital Context for Charlottesville Horrors in Terrific “BlacKkKlansman”

Rants and Raves
Published in
8 min readAug 13, 2018


Promotional Posters for “BlacKkKlansman” (Copyright: Focus Features)

Spike Lee’s best film in many years tells the bizarre true story Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. It is a humorous, thrilling, and thought-provoking film, but it is not a subtle one. Lee has clear and obvious intentions of drawing parallels to current events.

Author’s Note: Spoilers for a film currently in wide release are included in the article below. Every attempt has been made to limit the spoilers to the structure, themes, and techniques of the film and exclude key plot developments.

A Review of BlacKkKlansman

This past weekend, legendary yet controversial filmmaker Spike Lee unveiled his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. The film is based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police department who successfully infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. It is a fascinating (and bizarre) true story that Lee brings to life with skill and intensity with the help of a gifted creative team that includes producer Jordan Peele (who was behind the 2017 smash Get Out).

The film starts with Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the police department and being tasked with spying on an event being held by the black student union at Colorado College. The group has invited incendiary civil rights leader Kwame Ture to speak, a decision which has the (white) community fearing that he will incite revolution in the “peaceful” African-American population of Colorado Springs. At this assignment, Stallworth becomes inspired, both about black liberation and investigative police work, leading him to spearhead an investigation of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Stallworth uses his “white voice” over the phone to win over chapter president Walter Breachway (The Blacklist’s Ryan Eggold), but naturally he can’t attend the meetings in person. Thus, he sends narcotics officer Flip Zimmerman (Star Wars’s Adam Driver) to attend the meetings in his place. From this emerges the film’s dramatic tension, comic relief, and central themes. The drama comes as the stakes escalate as the chapter plans an act of domestic terrorism and their cover gets closer to being blown. The comedy comes as the officers try to pull off this delicate ruse and Stallworth has a field day making fools out of the KKK members. And the themes come from the ignorance, hatred, and pure malevolence that fuels the Klan and the power structures that keep them in power. One of the most fascinating dynamics of the film is that Stallworth is not the only one with a moral investment in dismantling the group. Zimmerman is Jewish by birth, an identity he has no strong connection with and one he can conceal, but one nevertheless puts him at profound risk amongst his new “band of brothers.”

Images from “BlacKkKlansman” (Copyright: Focus Features)

The acting in the film is uniformly excellent. The central role of Stallworth is played with humor and charisma by 35-year-old John David Washington, a relative newcomer who had a career as a running back before switching to a career in acting just like his dad, Denzel. He doesn’t quite have the dramatic intensity or screen presence of his 9-time Academy Award nominated (and 2-time winning) father, but that is an unnecessarily high bar to set. The immensely gifted Adam Driver turns in an intense, nuanced performance that is essentially flawless. As Stallworth’s girlfriend and local activist Patrice Dumas, Laura Harrier is passion and grace personified, even if her character is a bit underdeveloped. As the most evil of all of the KKK members Felix Kendrickson, Jasper Paakkonen is utterly terrifying and (mostly) avoids caricature. And in the film’s unlikeliest bit of casting, That 70’s Show star Topher Grace makes a pitch-perfect Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke (and historical photos show just how eery their resemblance is). There are also small roles for Alec Baldwin, Corey Hawkins, and — most memorably —91-year-old actor and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte, who steals his key scene.

The film is not perfect. There are key plot developments that feel unsatisfactorily set up and executed. There are characters, confrontations, and coincidences that are a bit too obviously manufactured for the narrative. And the film’s use of classic film and contemporary news footage are bold but not seamless (see more below on this topic). But, despite these imperfections, BlacKkKlansman is quite possibly the best film I have seen so far in 2018. It is at once laugh-out-loud funny, riveting, and deeply thought provoking. It could very well be an awards contender 6 months from now, but even if it is forgotten by then it will be remembered as a comeback for Spike Lee and will be etched into the memory of those who see it for months and maybe years to come. Grade: A-

A scene from “BlacKkKlansman” (Copyright: Focus Features)

A Reflection on the Significance of BlacKkKlansman…

As a Parallel to Current Events and an Indictment of the Current Administration. This is hardly the first Hollywood film to depict a historical event with the intention of drawing parallels to the present day and it certainly won’t be the last. But the manner in which it draws its parallels is in stark contrast to a traditional film like The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 drama about the Pentagon Papers, which featured clear and unequivocal messages about the dangers to democracy inherent in threats to the free press. Films like The Post tell a straightforward historical yarn and leave it to you to draw the parallels. There is no such subtlety in BlacKkKlansman.

As the film comes to its close, viewers are expecting the obligatory text telling us what happened next, either to the specific characters or to the KKK and civil rights movement as a whole. Instead, what we get is a jarring transition into raw news footage of the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned deadly on August 11–12, 2017 (not coincidentally, exactly one year ago to date of the film’s opening weekend). It’s utterly horrifying to relive but it is not presented just for shock value. It serves as a reminder to any viewers lulled into a sense of comfort by believing that everything they just watched for the past 130 minutes was tucked away comfortably in the past that the story is still very much alive and claiming lives on American soil. Poignantly, the film closes with a tribute to Heather Hayer, the civil rights activist who was killed during the events in Charlottesville. By ostensibly dedicating the film to her (a white woman no less), it serves as a kind of rallying cry for the involvement of all people in opposing the spread of white supremacy.

Somewhat less successful is the incorporation of Trump into the film. Undoubtedly, he and his wannabe-fascist, Neo-Nazi leaning administration ignited the flames for the events of Charlottesville, but it is a problem that existed before he took office and one that will exist after he leaves (or is removed from) office. In addition to showing his repugnant and infamous “Very fine people on both sides” speech after Charlottesville, various points in the film incorporate thinly veiled references to Trump’s campaign. The audience ate it up, but it it was akin to fourth-wall breaking in the way that it removed the audience from immersion in the present story. As I walked out of the theater I heard one man grumble, “They ruined it by putting Trump in it.” I wouldn’t go that far, but my guess is he’s not the only one who felt that way.

As a History of Race in Film. In addition to being the writer-director of numerous films, Spike Lee has also created numerous documentaries chronicling watershed events that influenced black culture. Highlights include his take on the tragic Birmingham church bombing of 1963 (1997’s 4 Little Girls), Hurricane Katrina (2006’s When the Levees Broke), and the impact of Michael Jackson in popular music (2012’s Bad 25). Thus it is no surprise that he weaves cultural history into the film.

BlacKkKlansman features three examples of Lee weaving in film history into the narrative. The film opens with the iconic scene from the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind featuring Scarlett O’Hara wandering through a sea of ailing Confederate soldiers post-battle. The scene is presented with very little context, but it is seems quite clear that Lee decided to start with a bold reminder of how deeply ingrained glorification of the Confederacy is into our popular culture. At a climactic moment in the film, we also see scenes from 1915’s Birth of a Nation, a film that in its day was a remarkable technological achievement that served as a landmark in feature filmmaking, but nevertheless features horrific glorification of the KKK, disgusting stereotypes of black people, and profound misogyny. These scenes are integrated into the plot unlike the one used from Gone with the Wind and there relevance is more explicitly articulated. And, in contrast to these two instances, there is a wonderful scene when Ron and Patrice are having a romantic stroll and debate the sociopolitical impact of blaxpoitation films like 1971's Shaft and 1972’s Superfly. Amidst the wildly entertaining story, viewers are treated to a crash course in film history that feels urgent and relevant as opposed to didactic.

As a Comparison of the Black Power and White Supremacy Movements. Although countless films have been made about 20th century race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S., I cannot recall one that simultaneously delves into two influential communities with opposing ideologies as BlacKkKlansman does. We see numerous instances of gatherings between the local chapter of the KKK and the black student union (which is heavily influenced by Black Panther ideology) and see recreated discussions between them. Both groups have their share of radicals and moderates, a nice reminder not to treat any movement as a monolith. And both groups certainly have their share of passion. But the morality and intellectual justification for their causes could not be more starkly opposed.

It might have been nice to see a somewhat more nuanced investigation of both sides. Some lip service is given to the potential dangers of the Black Panther movement, but little serious discussion is given and the group members are depicted with few distinguishing features. Likewise, an exploration of the origin of the deeply ingrained racism of the KKK members would have been welcome. There are brief mentions of the role of prior traumatic experiences involving people of color and the intergenerational transmission of racism that are potentially intriguing. Of course, there is absolutely no need for Lee to spend any effort justifying who is on the right side of history — that is abundantly clear (or at least should be to anyone willing to watch this movie in the first place). But the more texture, context, and moral ambiguity we can bring to socially important historical films like this will increase the likelihood that they will spurn deep reflection and action.

BlacKkKlansman is not a perfect film, but it’s a powerful and important one that is worth your time, money, and attention.

Read recent movie-related articles by the author including the new Oscar category for popular film and the impact of “Black Panther” on the industry.

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Rants and Raves

Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.