Re-watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) starring John David Washington & Adam Driver

When producer Jordan Peele first pitched “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan” to Spike Lee, Lee thought it might be a Dave Chappelle skit, until Peele assured him the story was authentic. For Lee, the story was too outrageous to ignore. He had a few conditions for directing: incl. comedic elements, and drawing parallels w/ contemporary racial issues. When Lee was a young student at NYU Film School, he was so outraged that professors taught the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation (w/ no mention of its racist message or its role in the Klan’s 20th century rebirth). He made The Answer (1980) as a response; many professors took great offense and Lee was nearly expelled. Lee was saved by a faculty vote; after his success as a filmmaker, he became a professor there and also Artistic Director of the Graduate Film Department. The film is dedicated to Heather Heyer, a young/idealistic white woman who was killed in hit-and-run at the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA. The film opened in the US on August 10, 2018 to mark the 1st anniversary of the rally/her death. Lee received a six-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival- wow! He also became the 2nd Black American to be nominated at the Academy Awards for producing, writing and directing in the same year.

Patrice: Are you down for the liberation of black people?

Ron: Power to the people.

Patrice: All power to all the people.

Ron: That’s right, Sista.

In the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington- oldest son of Denzel/former football player) is hired as the 1st Black officer in the Colorado Springs, CO police department. Ron (a real person) is a college grad from a military family who wants to make a difference in his community. He’s assigned to the records room, where he is faced w/ micro-aggressions and even openly racist remarks from others. Master Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) is one of the uniformed cops who doesn’t hide his dislike of Blacks. Ron (who wears an Afro and knows “jive”) soon requests to go undercover. His immediate supervisor, Sgt. Trapp (Ken Garito), is supportive of Ron. Chief Bridges (John David Burke) is surprised by the bold move, but agrees. Ron is assigned to infiltrate a rally where civil rights leader, Kwame Ture AKA Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins- recently played Macduff opposite Denzel in The Tragedy of Macbeth), is to give a speech. Ture was considered “radical” as he was a Black Panther; he had organized “The Freedom Rides” a few years earlier to register Black voters in the South. Two experienced undercover cops, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi- younger brother of Steve), listen in from a surveillance van nearby. In line for the rally, Ron meets a young woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College. This is a fictional character created for the movie; she is smart, articulate, and a challenging love interest for Ron. He hears Ture’s speech (very strong/impassioned); Hawkins provides gravitas to this small role.

Sgt. Trapp (to Ron): You know the way to sell hate? Affirmative action, immigration, crime, tax reform… He [David Duke] says, no one wants to be called a bigot anymore because Archie Bunker made that too uncool. So, the idea is under all these issues… everyday Americans can accept it. Support it. Until eventually, one day he gets somebody in the White House that embodies it.

The police don’t seem concerned w/ the Klan at this time; they think there is no activity locally. One day, Ron sees an ad in the paper, and calls up the number complaining re: Black people. He soon gets a return call from KKK’s Grand Wizard- and future politician- David Duke (Topher Grace)! Playing such a loathsome role posed a challenge for Grace, leading the actor to feel depressed. The men of “The Organization” (the term they use) are archetypes we’ve seen before; they’d be the type to vote for Trump (if around in recent years). Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) is the genial/clean-cut guy who quickly builds a rapport w/ Flip (posing as Ron in-person). Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen- who is actually Finnish) is the wild-eyed/hot-tempered one whose plus-size wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson- recently seen on And Just Like That and The Gilded Age) wants to get involved in his cause. Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) is the fat, dim-witted younger man (looking to the others for guidance/approval). Felix has a collection of firearms; he suspects that Flip is Jewish (raising the tension/potential for danger).

Flip: For you it’s a crusade. For me it’s a job.

Ron: You’re Jewish. They hate you. Doesn’t that piss you off? Why are you acting like you don’t got skin in the game?

One of the key themes of this movie is duality; Ron and Patrice even have a conversation re: “double consciousness” on one of their dates. Double consciousness is the internal conflict experienced by subordinated or colonized groups in an oppressive society. The term and the idea were first published in W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Originally, double consciousness was specifically the psychological challenge African Americans experienced of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt.” The term also referred to Du Bois’s experiences of reconciling his African heritage w/ an upbringing in a European-dominated society. Ron is a Black man living in a racist society; he is also a police officer (so part of “the system”). Flip is Jewish (has a Star of David necklace), but he didn’t grow up w/ the rituals and traditions (and always considered himself “white”). However, getting embedded w/ the KKK, Flip finally has to grapple w/ his religious heritage and the prejudice faced by Jewish people. Lee co-wrote the script w/ his (frequent) collaborator, Kevin Wilmott and two Jewish co-writers who served as producers (Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz).

Flip (to Ron): I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised to be. It wasn’t part of my life, I never thought much about being Jewish, nobody around me was Jewish. I wasn’t going to a bunch of Bar Mitzvahs, I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I was just another white kid. And now I’m in some basement denying it out loud. (He chuckles low.) I never thought much about it, now I’m thinking about it all the time. About rituals and heritage. Is that passing? Well then I have been passing.

He’s a beast! Game respects game. -Lee re: working w/ Driver

For Driver fans, there is much to admire: the quiet intensity, close-ups of his profile (quite striking), and his restrained swagger. His hair is longer than most cops and he wears casual clothes (plaid shirts, sheepskin jacket, and jeans). Flip is a really good shot (can handle himself in tough situations) and projects a laid-back personality. As Flip interacts more w/ the Klan, it takes a toll (focus on the eyes). There are a few light moments in the film between the cops; these are needed to cut the tension created by the serious subject material. Driver was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. There is much more to see/discuss; check it out yourself! I saw it at a free screening when it came out in theaters, then saw it again (Amazon Prime) a few weeks ago.

[1] BlacKkKlansman, is great movie, that manages to be thought provoking and funny at the same time. The cinematography is excellent. The only issue I had with this movie was the pacing, but nothing major. Oh, forgot to mention, great ending as well!

[2] There are aspects that feels too artificial which detracts from the tension. The subject matter requires the movie to be more real. At times, Spike Lee pushes into satire territories but nevertheless, it is still one of his better recent movies.

[3] Lee’s film takes liberties with the actual true events. It starts off as a satirical drama. Lee however in unable to resist being heavy-handed with his message…

The film benefits greatly from the performances by John David Washington and Adam Driver.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Q&A w/ the cast, director, & Ron Stallworth:

5 thoughts on “Re-watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) starring John David Washington & Adam Driver

  1. I don’t know, I always think of people on imdb as being expert and knowing what they are getting into. I mean, I know if I view a Tarantino film to expect certain things that I don’t like. Or that I will probably like a Coen Brothers film.

    Like

  2. Huh. I didn’t think the film was heavy-handed at all. Direct, maybe. Driver really fits into the aesthetic of the 70s well here — he does that stiffness trying to be cool thing really well. I saw it again a few months ago and TV and liked it very much again.

    Liked by 1 person

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