DEVIN MEENAN — A filmmaker bringing a fresh eye on old injustices can bring change to media and people today.
Last Friday, the Denison Film Society held their first screening of the semester, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The film was recently nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee. I had the privilege of seeing the movie in theaters when it first premiered last August and I was eager to rewatch it.
Adapted from a memoir by the same name, BlacKkKlansman is set in 1972 Colorado Springs, CO and follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) the first African-American member of the city’s police department as he infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Obviously unable to meet with them in person, he confines himself to talking with them over the phone while sending one of his colleagues Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to act as “Ron Stallworth,” in his place.
To discuss the film merely on a craftsmanship level, it’s quite phenomenal. Lee’s direction is as excellent as ever, with the often quick-paced editing being particularly well done. One sequence late in the film stands out; the KKK screened The Birth Of A Nation, the 1915 film which created negative racial stereotypes that persist to this day and revitalized the KKK. Meanwhile, the film cross-cuts to an aged Civil Rights activist (Harry Belafonte) recounting the real-life 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, reinforces what a boon the D.W. Griffith film was to the cause of bigotry in America.
The cast is excellently assembled as well with many of the actors excelling at delivery of lines both funny and cringe-inducing. One masterstroke on Lee’s part is his casting of Topher Grace as KKK leader David Duke, who serves as an excellent wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing and a reminder that bigotry and evil often come in unexpected packages.
On that note, while the film is anything but subtle in its political vision, this is precisely why I consider it necessary viewing. There is no attempt to sugarcoat how little progress this country has made on combating racial injustice in the nearly 50 years since the film is set and now, while Duke and KKK use the all-too-familiar rally of “America First.” The film even ends with of footage from the 2017 Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an absolutely vital sequence in displaying how racism is alive today. More generally, the film doesn’t flinch in depicting the ugliness of the KKK’s brutality, nor in drawing explicit comparisons between the KKK and the police; the CSPD is shown to be more interested in investigating the Black Panthers than the Klan before Stallworth forces their hand, and at the end of the film the investigation is prematurely ended owing to “budget cuts.” One scene towards the end, where a racist police officer who had antagonized Stallworth is arrested, stands out as an unsuitably rosy picture of the American justice system, and its presence prevents me from wholeheartedly declaring BlacKkKlansman a masterpiece.