Unite the Right
Spike Lee opened BlacKkKlansman by wake-up call a year after the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, North Carolina. Hundreds of protesters from various white supremacist groups carried the Ku Klux Klan or swastika. In addition, they demonstrated against the city’s order to remove the Confederate monument from public spaces. They also shouted racial slurs against people of color. In addition to carrying the torch in the march for white supremacy, Heather Heyer lost her life in the chaos. A member of the white nationalist movement drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. On the other hand, the film became a subversive wake-up call for Americans. It refers to those who like to declare their country the greatest.
Even though the United States faces division and intolerance, those countries do not provide justice and freedom for all. Instead, it remains in a state of crisis by telling the true story of Ron Stallworth, Lee’s political statements that people cannot deny using the semblance of a detective film. It serves to weave a thread through Donald Trump’s presidency, the enduring presence of hate groups, and the Confederacy that refuses to condemn white nationalism. Ron is a black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. After all, the film has a timeliness that touches on critical national conversations since Lee’s other films, such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.
Spike Lee is one of the most iconic filmmakers of modern times. After 30 years of an influential film career, he has just scored his first Oscar nominations for Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Achievement in Directing of 2019. For BlacKkKlansman, the film has finally made it to the Academy. There is a simple explanation why. People generally understand the Oscars as a kind of lifetime achievement award. One could say Lee’s nominee corrected the mistake of ignoring Do the Right Thing. However, BlacKkKlansman is an important wake-up call in his own right from an adult director who achieves mastery over his message and his media. Despite still being at the top of his game, Lee guides the audience through the things that stand out the most about the film.
It is how the film shows the director doing what he does best. Lee proved that movies have power. It speaks of today in its distinctive style. In every way, the film is a classic the director mix. It displays all the director’s trademarks. In each of his films, Lee always gives a wake-up call. It came just after Ron and his colleagues discussed the possibility of David Duke running for office, with a clear nod to President Trump. In the past, many people thought a Trump presidency was inconceivable. Like people, today, maybe watch movies about the 70s. Comfortably, people feel that America’s worst racism is behind its society. So at this point, the film issues a wake-up call. It urges the audience not to be too naive. In Lee’s signature tracking shot, the shot of the double dolly hovers or pushes the actor forward.
The Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman does not portray Ron as the wake-up call hero of Black history. However, Lee presents a policeman with a structurally familiar style. It is reminiscent of some aspects of other films by the director, like Inside Man. He hits the beat that people need from a detective story. Briefly, Ron starts an undercover case that forces him to question his loyalty. A relatively inexperienced young actor, Washington has all the capacity to appeal to the screen for the subtleties and complexities of his father.
After an initial assignment from his superiors to find him undercover at a Black Panther rally, he tries to find out if Kwame Ture, a powerful speaker, will brainwash the black citizens of Colorado Springs. Ron realized that his department’s prejudice had caused undue suspicion of civil rights groups. Spontaneously, it may be because it defies his duties as Black Panther. Ron responded to the KKK newspaper ad and contacted Walter, the head of KKK’s Colorado Springs branch. He also led an undercover investigation that involved sending his white colleague, Flip Zimmerman, to be the face of his voice, and uncovering the KKK’s violent intentions.
As the film progresses, Ron and Flip clash in their investigation. Ron sees the elimination of the KKK as a passionate project of law and social justice. On the other hand, Flip sees the assignment as just another case. Flip is a secular Jew who hides his religion. He sees the job as a professional duty, nothing more. At such a moment, he begins to hear the rhetoric and understands the hatred philosophy of the Klansmen, including the always suspicious Walter, Ivanhoe, and Felix. Flip meets with the KKK on Ron’s behalf. However, Felix remains suspicious and accuses him of being a Jew.
If Felix discovers his secret, it will be a bow for Flip as much as involving him as Ron. The driver carries the role of gravity and restraint. It turns their partnership into a complex portrait of Black and white officers working together on the same mission. Similar to other 2018 films, Boots Riley’s satire in Sorry to Bother You led Lee to admit that many African Americans take on performative roles and, in one sense, feel pressure to disguise themselves in front of white people.
A Personal Point of View
Ron and Patrice seemed to slide down the hallway at the end of the last sequence. They see the cross-burning outside. After such a scene, the film features actual footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the attack that killed Heyer. Lee often incorporates actual video footage or photos to remind his audience how his films are connected to the real world. The Charlottesville trailer shows that not just white supremacists are still active today. However, they were not even hiding anymore either. Through an idiosyncratic lens, the nuanced view of the race plays into the absurd but exaggerated feeling of such events. It lets the audience laugh at the over-representation of the characters in the past. However, it is only to pull the rug from under the audience when he reveals that they are too current and accurate.
In the film, David Duke is present as a character who may seem cartoonish and silly. However, at the end of the film, Lee reminds the audience that it is a person who is still active and dangerous today. Things have changed a lot since Do the Right Thing. Police brutality in America is still horrific today. What people see here is Lee’s evolution. In Do the Right Thing, Lee aligns himself with the radical side of the debate. Nearly 30 years since then, the director may have become more open to working for more stable and moderate progress in the system. According to Riley, Lee came out with a film in which he made story points to make black cops and their comrades look like allies in the disappointing fight against racism. However, Lee did not argue that all the police were on the right side of justice. Most importantly, wherever Lee stands personally, he continues to voice both sides of the debate in his film.
The Birth of a Nation
In 1915, D. W. Griffith created The Birth of a Nation. It tells the story of the KKK, who plays a heroic force with just reason. On the other hand, the film also depicts a black man roughly and is played by a white man with a black face. They act as sexual aggressors and clowns. In BlacKkKlansman, it is a black power activist who has a just cause. On the other hand, white people deviate. In such a scene, members of the Black Power gather around an elder to hear the story of Jesse Washington’s torture and lynching.
Meanwhile, KKK members gathered around the screening of The Birth of a Nation to cheer for such violent images. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s clever intellectual black wake-up call leader contrasts with the ignorant white power follower who speaks with racist chants. KKK members carry and fire guns while Black Power activists appear nonviolent with only a fleeting nod to the militarism in such a gesture. Historical narratives with the binary of bad and good, barbaric and civilized, and backward and progressive have been used as justifications for the oppression of the people by imperial powers and political elites. Brilliantly, Lee uses a similar technique of constructing binaries to reverse the narrative.
Gone with the Wind
In addition to The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind also opens the film’s story, an epic Civil War film that became one of the highest-grossing films ever made if adjusted for inflation. Lee uses both films to remind audiences of cinema’s racist heritage. It is how the media was used to demean black people and promote sympathetic views of the Confederacy. In addition, Lee also refers to the genre of blaxploitation in styles such as explicitly in the script or the repetition of musical themes. The genre is inherently contradictory because it is empowering on a certain level. It makes for an excellent black character and defines itself as a hero. At the same time, the genre plays on certain destructive stereotypes.
Through all the references, Lee reminds audiences that film has absolute power in society. The Birth of a Nation became one of the real examples that revived the KKK. By responding through his film, he takes control in shaping perceptions through cinema itself. When Do the Right Thing drop out of most categories at the Oscars, the best film was Driving Miss Daisy. In 2018, BlacKkKlansman went wake-up call against the Green Book. Both driving films are touchingly and well made. However, they offer a more or less clean version of race relations from a white person’s perspective with a neat happy ending. It may be demoralizing to realize how little progress the audience can show. However, the first step is to become aware and stay sober.
BlacKkKlansman asks the audience to identify the wake-up call. He also made the connections that people have needed throughout history. After Charlottesville, Trump has drawn his line in the sand. So is Lee, whose final shot of the film rests on an upturned American flag. It became a symbol of a country in trouble. No matter how serious the idea of the film, Lee still creates one of his most accessible entertainments. Such ideology persists and is of great interest to some people. Skipping or hiding other parts of each self, the audience plays right on the agenda of bigotry. It helps further the assumption that to succeed in society, by nature, humans must be white.
At the last moment, Ron and Patrice argue about their views on the police. After they heard a knock on the door, they suddenly came together. They face a far greater threat than not discriminating against dissent. The KKK did not care if they were a detective or an activist. To them, they were their race. Wherever people engage in moderate and radical debates, they are still on the same side in the end. If the film seems to adopt a crazy tone, functioning on a high level of aesthetics and reality, it is because of the crazy times. It is noticed that the seemingly impossible past exists in today’s society’s culture.
- Daileader, C. R. (2005). Racism, misogyny, and the Othello myth: Inter-racial couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee. Cambridge University Press.
- Gallagher, C. (2018). BlacKkKlansman reverses film’s historic power narrative between Blacks and Whites. USApp-American Politics and Policy Blog.
- Turner, J. (2020). Spike Lee (dir.)(2018) BlacKkKlansman.