BlacKkKlansman: a tribute to anti-racism with its share of contradictions

Poster for BlacKkKlansman.

BlacKkKlansman
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier & Topher Grace.
2018, in cinemas now

BlacKkKlansman is based upon the 2014 memoirs Black Klansman by former Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) telling the real-life story of his operation to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The film is directed by Spike Lee who is known for directing seminal films such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. This film, however, has its share of contradictions.

In the early 1970s, Stallworth became the first Black man to join what was considered a very racist Colorado Springs police department. Initially assigned to the department’s records department where he faces racist treatment from fellow officers, Stallworth asks for a transfer to go undercover, and is sent to spy on a talk by Black Power leader Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) organised by the local Black Students Union chapter, headed by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).

Stallworth is torn between his duties as a police officer and sympathies as a Black man while listening to Toure’s speech. This feeling is compounded when he witnesses Patrice and Toure being assaulted by a racist police officer.

Afterwards, Stallworth is transferred to the intelligence department. He comes across an ad for the local KKK chapter in the newspaper and develops a scheme to infiltrate the group, using his Jewish co-worker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose as him when meeting KKK members.

Stallworth manages to contact national KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace), fooling him into believing that he is a white man. Duke is goaded into claiming he knows the difference between the way a white and a Black man speak, with made-up nonsense such as: “Where as you and I, would say ‘are’ correctly, a Black person would say ‘are-ah’.”

This leads to a satisfying payoff later in the film when Stallworth humiliates Duke when he reveals his real identity over the phone.

You get a real sense of the dangers faced by Stallworth and Zimmerman in running this operation. At one stage, one of the local KKK chapter members suspects Zip, posing as Stallworth, of being Jewish and forces Zip to take a lie detector test. The danger is only averted by Stallworth throwing a brick in the window of the basement of the KKK members house. Stallworth is pursued by armed KKK members, only narrowly escaping being shot.

In the end, the operation only narrowly manages to succeed in stopping Patrice and other members of the Black Students Union from being killed in a terrorist bombing. This is thanks to incompetence on behalf of the terrorist, the wife of a KKK member.

Filming for BlacKkKlansaman began just weeks after the events in Charlottesville last year when an anti-racist protester, Heather Hayer, was run over and killed by a Neo-Nazi when protesting against the far right. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the subsequent rise of the far right, BlackkKlansman is a very timely film.

However, it has many contradictions. For a start, we don’t get any explanation as to why Stallworth would want to join the Colorado Police force, an institution notorious for its racism, except that he is a “straight arrow”.

Also, the film celebrates the police as a progressive force that can overcome racism in society. This led to criticism from fellow filmmaker and hip-hop artist Boots Riley, whose own anti-capitalist film Sorry to Bother You has also just been released.

Riley said: “After 40 years of cop shows and cop movies — did we really need one more movie where it supposed to be about racism but the cops are the actual heroes of the film and the most effective force against racism?”

Also, the film neglects to mention that in the 1920s, the entire power structure in Colorado was stacked with KKK members and supporters. Even in the 1970s, the KKK would have still had immense power in Colorado, as indicated by the ease with which Stallworth’s operation was eventually ended by the police hierarchy.

However, despite its contradictions, BlacKkKlansman is a film worth watching. Of particular note is the end, in which a KKK cross burning outside Stallworth’s house is juxtaposed with the Tiki torch wielding White supremacist rally in Charlottesville. The only difference being the fact that the “Unite the Right” marchers in Charlottesville did not feel the need to wear hoods.

Finally, we see a powerful tribute to Heather Hayer and the inspiring response of everyone who came out to take a stand against racism and the far right, whether it is represented by the KKK, neo-Nazis or the racist power structures and institutions such as the police.