“Radicalizing Kwame Ture more than he was, just to create a false equivalence to the KKK, is troublesome.”
Director: Spike Lee 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Charlie Wachtel 👨🏼🇺🇸, David Rabinowitz 👨🏼🇺🇸, Kevin Willmott 👨🏾🇺🇸, and Spike Lee 👨🏾🇺🇸, based on the book by Ron Stallworth 👨🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Spike Lee’s films over the years. Even though his work often wants to make valuable points about culture and race, it sometimes go off the rails or become too preachy. Lee has never been known for subtlety. But BlacKkKlansman just might be one of his most cogent films. It’s funny and serious in just the right spots, and it when it needs to hit hard in that classic Lee style, it successfully marks its targets.
Perhaps the question is just who Lee’s targets are. Usually, his films speak primarily to black audiences, as they educate, confront, and mobilize politically and socially-conscious black cinephiles. But for BlacKkKlansman, Lee turns his brand of blunt storytelling towards white audience members. In fact, this could be seen as his first film exclusively for non-black moviegoers who might consider themselves liberal or are just now trying to figure out where they fit within the conversation about race, culture, and white privilege.
Even though the film is about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the lone black detective on the Colorado Springs police force, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays an equally important role. How else can a black detective infiltrate a white nationalist domestic terror group, unless there’s a white detective to play the physical role?
The cross-racial team-up of Zimmerman and Stallworth allows BlacKkKlansman to become much more instructional for white viewers than it is for black ones, since we black Americans have lived with the realities of the race-based violence all our lives. When I watched this film in a mixed audience that skewed slightly white, I could tell the only ones truly enveloped in the narrative were the white audience members. The experiences they watched were perhaps revelatory for them, especially with Lee’s decision to play portions of real footage from the tragedy in Charlottesville, NC, in which counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by the alt-right. Lee hits home that America’s relationship with racism affects us all and won’t discriminate in who it can kill. For some in the audience, watching BlacKkKlansman may have stoked the realization that being white won’t save them.
Time and time again, we see women share scenes yet still manage to slip under the low bar of the Bechdel Test. In BlacKkKlansman, Patrice Dumas, a collegiate Black Power revolutionary, is onscreen with her cohort Odetta, a darker-skinned black woman (played by Laura Harrier and Damaris Lewis, respectively). But they never exchange dialogue. Instead, the most important part of their scene occurs between Dumas and Stallworth, and even Odetta’s words revolve around Stallworth as she questions his relationship with her friend instead of talking directly to Dumas herself.
There’s also something that could be said for choosing Harrier, who is mixed-race of black, Polish, and English descent, to play the role of Black Power activist Dumas. The whole time Odetta was onscreen with her, I wished their roles were reversed. If I’m writing honestly, I’m kinda over light-skinned black women getting the glut of the black roles in Hollywood. While Dumas does strike an image similar to Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, both of whom are light-skinned and belonged to the Black Panther party at one point, I would have loved if Lee evoked the darker-skinned women in the movement like Assata Shakur, Judy Hart, or legendary singer Chaka Khan.
The other important female character, Connie Kendrickson, played by Ashlie Atkinson, doesn’t interact with any other woman (unless you count her trying to bomb Dumas’ home). Instead, Kendrickson exists in the realm of white men with an almost pathological need for their attention—particularly the attention of her Klansman husband, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen).
She represents radicalized white femininity, a purposeful inclusion that echoes many articles about how white women in America have upheld patriarchal white supremacy over the years. Evidenced in 2016, large amounts of white women voted alongside men for Trump, who dogwhistles to white nationalism. To her credit, Atkinson understands exactly what her role as Kendrickson is supposed to teach the audience, as she discusses in an interview with Mic:
"[White women] don't even have to be present for other people to use them against black people or any person of color. But that doesn't mean that we're also not complicit in maintaining the status quo of a white supremacist system because it is comfortable and safe for us, or [at least] perceived as safe and comfortable for us."
However, while Atkinson brings an immense amount of understanding and acumen to the role, I came away feeling like Lee didn’t trust the character enough to allow her to be even more horrible. Maybe it’s his male point of view, an angle which can sometimes infantilize or disempower the way women make decisions for themselves. In the film, Kendrickson did choose to participate in bombing Dumas’ house, but she was shown to be motivated by loyalty for her husband rather than simply carrying deep-seated bigotry in her heart, the way her husband does. This takes some of the wind out of Lee’s argument against radicalized white femininity and plays more into the conventions society already has about white women—that they are docile creatures coerced into doing awful things by evil men.
It’s on the strength of Atkinson’s own understanding about white women’s complicity more than Lee’s script that elevates Kendrickson. She could have been a preachy character. But Atkinson portrays her as a sad, believable portrayal of the undercover sleeper cell. She represents the Permit Patties of the world who bake cookies for new neighbors and smiles in the faces of people of color, all the while clenching the mace in her purse.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 53% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Race is the overt theme of BlacKkKlansman and it’s explored at length through this film. Washington does a great job as Stallworth, particularly in portraying his love for police work despite being looked at by his love interest, Dumas, as a race traitor. Yet the conceit of Stallworth being (to paraphrase the film) fluent in both white dialect and “jive” doesn’t hit the note its supposed to. Washington capitalizes on “sounding white” when it comes to impersonating a racist over the phone, but when he is in person as the security detail for former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), Washington doesn’t change Stallworth’s speech pattern at all. Instead, Stallworth ends up sounding just like he does when he’s “white”; in fact, laughably, he sounds whiter. Since the film is trying to make a statement about code-switching—the practice of changing one’s speech and presentation in different racial spaces—it would have been nice to hear Washington make his character sound more relaxed in blacker spaces and more uptight in whiter ones, such as at the police office.
Speaking of racialized spaces, the film makes a point about showing the segregated spaces of the Black Power Movement and the KKK in stark contrast to each other to highlight the way society has propagandized black empowerment as a threat, and white domestic terrorism as one-off outliers. In one of the film's most intense scenes, Lee juxtaposes the chants of “Black Power” by college students and “White Power” by KKK members to show what each group is truly fighting for—the former seeking safety and freedom, while the latter seeks to destroy any perceived threats to their fanatical views of genetic superiority.
With that said, Lee’s thesis regarding the Black Power Movement and the white nationalism can be a little muddied, since on occasion, it appears as if he’s indicting real life black activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) for his rhetoric just as much as he indicts the Klan. For instance, in an early scene Ture tells Stallworth that the racial revolution is coming and that they’ll need gun power. But in actuality, Ture never advocated for pandemonius violence. Instead, he espoused black separatism, of “building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created.” It's this rhetoric of a self-sustaining black economy that led white America to fear retaliation, even though all Ture meant was for black America to create its own society built upon black empowerment. Lee does show that the Black Power Movement never fires a shot in the film and that the KKK does. But by inserting a statement Ture might not have supported, just to create a false equivalence, is troublesome.
One area where BlacKkKlansman shines is through Grace’s performance as David Duke. Grace was already popular for his everyman role on That ‘70s Show, and it’s his Ned Flanders-esque quality that makes Duke even more insidious. A leader who seeks to brand the group as nonviolent neighborhood men—who no longer don robes and hoods (in public)—is even more frightening due his guileless appearance and persona. It’s an inspired bit of casting on Lee’s part, and Grace both cements the film as an indictment of the Klan while also highlighting America’s penchant for believing and respecting white individuals, merely because they fit the stereotype of an “ordinary American”.
The film also does well in its commentary on how socialized whiteness does, in fact, erase white people’s relationship with their own ethnic heritage. Zimmerman, for instance, slowly realizes over the course of the film that despite being Jewish he has been passing as Anglo-Saxon Christian, something Stallworth had previously accused him of doing. Passing is how he has been able to get by without being terrorized in his life, but by going undercover in the Klan, Zimmerman gets a crash course in how white skin can’t always save someone from racism.
Bonus for Religion: +0.50
Special commendation goes to BlacKkKlansman for including Jewish persecution in the film’s examination of intolerance. Zimmerman’s identity is routinely compared to the black experience both in the film and in a larger historical context, as both have faced historical subjugation and genocidal crimes. The Holocaust, for instance, is brought up by a Klan member in an attempt to ruffle Zimmerman’s feathers to prove that he is, in fact, Jewish.
As one of the films two leading men, Zimmerman becomes an avatar for white audience members who might feel like they don’t usually have an entryway into stories about race relations. As a Jewish cop who has passed for a WASP most of his life, Zimmerman gets reintroduced to his own otherness, a feeling Stallworth has to face every day as a black man. The KKK hate Jewish people as much as they hate African-Americans, and being in constant contact with men who give voice to that hatred affects Zimmerman in ways he didn’t realize it would. At first, he approaches the investigation as just another job, but it quickly becomes personal.
It should be noted, though, that Driver himself isn’t Jewish. It could be interpreted that Lee cast Driver on stereotyped Jewish physical attributes, so that’s not cool. This could be less of an issue, were it not for a history of shows casting this way (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ruth Bader Ginsberg in On the Basis, etc.), or more relevant for this film, if the entire basis of Driver's character wasn't about “passing”. If Lee can chide Zimmerman for passing as a WASP, then why cast Driver to pass as Jewish?
Deduction in Body Positivity: -0.50
Connie Kendrickson’s size is used as a way to excuse her bad decision-making, since it’s assumed that she has low self-esteem because she’s plus size. This trope of the depressed fat woman is damaging. Take a look at the discourse surrounding Netflix’s Insatiable, for instance, which demonizes its plus sized main character until she loses weight. But it might be particularly insidious in BlacKkKlansman, since the trope acts as a buffer for the audience who must come to grips with the fact that someone as superficially nice as Kendrickson could commit murder. The unspoken excuse for her is that if she had better self-esteem—if she were thinner—she wouldn’t have settled for someone like Felix and his life of hatred. However, it would have been more compelling if Kendrickson was attracted to Felix because of his views, not just because of her desperation.
The characterization of Klan member Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) also comes down to weight. Lee makes the point that the KKK recruits the worst of the worst and seems to delight in painting Ivanhoe as a fat, drunk, and uncultured moron. Even though Lee does show how the rest of the Klan members are terrible in different ways, Ivanhoe is the only member singled out through visual gags that rely on his physical appearance to land. For a film that seeks to make moral judgments, this lack of awareness surrounding its own culpability in fat-shaming strikes a minor chord to my ears.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.42/5
BlacKkKlansman can be enjoyed by all audiences, but it’s especially geared towards white audience members who have never had to live with the repercussions of racism. For those viewers, Lee’s latest is a primer for race in America and a jumping point for further conversation. Through footage of Heather Heyer’s murder, and the film’s closing frame of a young, white woman’s face, Lee makes the point that complicity results in trauma and death for all, regardless of skin color.
This clear decision has drawn some criticism, including criticism from Boots Riley, the director of Sorry to Bother You, a film that came out earlier this year that also comments on systemic racism again black Americans. Riley points out that BlacKkKlansman is largely fabricated and misleading in its claim to being a true story, then takes issue with its positive portrayal of the police. For example, once the police force gets rid of its lone, racist cop, everything is depicted as sunshine and rainbows. Still, I think the film does make pains to show the police force’s imperfections, too; this celebratory ending actually flies contrary to the scene before it, in which Stallworth was ganged up on and put under arrest by white cops while he was trying to arrest Kendrickson for her premeditated bombing. Clearly, the Colorado Springs Police have more than just one lone racist they need to kick out, but the film does do its best to show a police department that has as many bad cops as they do good ones.
Riley also mentions Spike Lee’s advertisement firm Spike DDB receiving $219,113 as consultancy payment from the NYPD’s nonprofit, the New York City Police Foundation, and it’s true: Lee’s firm was one of many who worked on the department’s neighborhood policing ad campaign. Some might feel the way Riley does, that BlacKkKlansman plays directly into Lee’s newfound relationship with a fractured and problematic police force and leads him to paint the organization in much more gracious tones than he has in the past.
But for all of the film’s issues and Lee’s about-face regarding the police, BlacKkKlansman is getting people to talk about the overt and subtle ways that race functions in American society, and that counts for something. If anything, maybe it’ll make its audience more empowered to shut down racism within their own family and friends so that another Charlottesville doesn’t happen again.