There’s a trope I really hate in biopics. We have some inspirational tale of adversity that really happened to someone–and, in most cases, this is someone we’ve heard of before. They accomplish their goals. We end on a sweeping score, and read some epitaph about what happened to all of the main characters. The work they went on to do. Their peaceful deaths. Some films subvert this pretty beautifully–my favorite examples being the sardonic The Social Network, the shattering Z, or even the hilarious Animal House. But so many movies based on true stories are committed to the leaving the viewer feeling uplifted. The idea is that people, just like us, did these hard things, and so can we. Instead, we’re left thinking, “Well, good thing life isn’t like that anymore.” But that’s not always the case.\
Spike Lee is acutely aware of this, and with BlacKkKlansman, he never lets his audience forget that his movie is “based on fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” Even when Lee takes liberties with the source material Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, he is constantly reminding us that little has changed in the 45-plus years between the timeline of the film and today. And to be sure, BlacKkKlansman gets in one’s skin. Lee’s best film since The 25th Hour–and maybe even Malcolm X–is a deeply funny, frequently sobering story that unfolds and escalates effortlessly, revealing who we are, who America is, and who a person has to be in order to combat hatred and racism.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is unquestionably black. As he approaches the HQ for the Colorado Springs Police Department, he pats his large afro, making sure he is as presentable as can be for his white bosses. Sure enough, Ron doesn’t smoke, party, sleep around. Nothing. He uses hard Rs, and picks his battles. Because Ron has to be exemplary. Being the first and only black cop in the CSPD only exacerbates that pressure. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) says he’ll have Ron’s back, but this amounts more or less to lip service. And while Ron mostly gets along with his fellow officers, he does find himself at odds with bad cops like Andy Landers (Frederick Weller)–who lets Ron know how he feels with maybe the film’s best line, “I know you think you’re hot shit, but you ain’t nothin’ but a cold fart.” Needless to say, Ron has himself something of an uphill battle.
Ron’s mainly relegated to the records room, but he’s hungry to do some actual police work. So, Bridges throws him an assignment to check out Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)–formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. The higher-ups are concerned that Ture may be taking his Black Power movement in a potentially violent direction. And sure enough, Ture even tells Ron directly to arm himself. A war is coming. During the sting, Ron meets Black Student Union president Patrice (Lauren Harrier), a revolutionary in the making. Patrice and Ron click immediately, their connection hampered by Patrice’s disdain for cops. So, Ron lies and claims to work in construction. Thus begins his foray into going undercover.
On a whim, having no real assignments in his new intelligence job, Ron stumbles onto an add for Ku Klux Klan recruitment. After Ron gives them a call, getting the attention of the chapter president of “the Organization,” with a barrage of white supremacist rhetoric, he teams up with fellow detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to act as his white stand-in. They find that the group is little more than a bunch of racist hicks, but they show enough of their hand to suggest that something grim is on the horizon. In the midst of their investigation, sniffing out greater and greater potential for acts of violence–despite assertions that “the Organization” is strictly non-violent–Ron strikes up an ongoing dialogue with none other than National Director David Duke (Topher Grace).
Duke, while nearly ancillary to the plot, capitalizes on Grace’s preppy boyishness. While the Klan’s logic is disagreeable–put mildly–there is a frightening method to their madness might be attractive to the cast of betas that have joined up with the KKK. They’re angry, bored, and susceptible enough to buy into a message of white nationalism. Perhaps the most vital layer to the depiction of the Klan is that, although the group itself is all male, women are equally complicit. The wives of the Klansman are not being bullied into a racist party line. They’re begging to get in on the action. This isn’t a case of white men; this is a white-against-black issue.
Something else that Lee does throughout BlacKkKlansman is reference film. Because Lee understands that the films we see and celebrate are those that collectively represent our values. The opening shot of the film is that famous oner from Gone with the Wind, with a field lined with wounded soldiers. Gone with the Wind remains, adjusted for inflation, the highest grossing film ever, one that deifies a culture piggybacking off of black oppression. At one point, Ron and Patrice go back and forth on different blaxploitation films–with Ron loving the fantasy of powerful, able-bodied black characters, while Patrice more reluctant to heap praise, given that popular black films can only be a specific type of fantasy.
Most notably–a Klan initiation ceremony, intercut with a monologue from Harry Belafonte, is followed by a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal The Birth of a Nation: The first cinematic epic, about the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era of the U.S., which includes the depiction of the heroic White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Before The Birth of a Nation, the KKK was a fledgling group, only to rise in popularity with the debut of Griffith’s film. What’s crazy about The Birth of a Nation–and really what’s so wild about Gone with the Wind or even Superfly–is that Griffith, by all accounts, didn’t actually care about race. He was just the son of a Confederate army colonel, and was shaped by his southern upbringing. Griffith’s depiction of black Americans has nothing to do with their being black, but rather, suggests an engrained shorthand that vilifies black people, not out of malice, but out of habit. That’s why even Chief Bridges is, in modern parlance, microaggressively racist towards Ron. He comes from a pre-Civil Rights era, where a certain kind of racism still exists under the surface.
That level of casual racism never went away. Lee consistently makes references to modern pop culture and politics. Sometimes this is as silly as the cops discussing their affection for O.J. Simpson, but this practice becomes more sinister as the film progresses. Whether this is including Trump sloganeering into Klan dialogue–like when David Duke talks about putting “America first,” or “making America great again–” or Ron’s boss suggesting that someone who supports David Duke’s agenda could become president, Lee is constantly reminding us how little things have changed, how easily hate can spread, and how aware we need to be. Because people like Duke will always exist. Nazis walk the same streets as freely as any other (white) American. This is a cause that has life to spare, which Lee becomes quite literal about by the film’s crushing end.
Near the end of BlacKkKlansman, Ron confesses to Patrice that he is a cop. Patrice won’t be with Ron if he’s police, which he has always wanted to be. American law enforcement, as Patrice notes multiple times throughout the film, is an inherently oppressive system. Built much like the United States. Neither Ron nor Patrice are wrong. How does one change something created fundamentally upon flawed, white supremacist values. Are we supposed to make up for our mistakes as we go, or do we burn the whole thing down and start again? And while Lee lets this question linger, he does make one thing clear: If we, as a nation, do believe that all men and women are created equal, we can’t do nothing. The KKK lives. Nazis have a president in the White House who won’t rebuke them. People are willing to pretend that these groups don’t matter, but they do. And as long as they work to exist, and as long as they are doing something to meet their goals, those who truly believe in unequivocal justice don’t get to rest.