I guess I was right. Reality is much stranger than fiction.
Spike Lee’s newest film is the story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American investigator in his Colorado Springs police department, who successfully manages to infiltrate the local KKK. He uses his “King’s English” voice when he’s on the phone and gets his Jewish colleague, Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman, to play him when he goes to meetings.
Before I go on, I must confess that this is the first Spike Lee film I have seen, but if this one is any indicator, he is an excellent director. Lee does everything right with this movie.
Firstly, the acting is fantastic. John David Washington as Ron Stallworth was surprisingly relatable, especially in his quiet moments. For the first part of the movie, Stallworth is a more introverted character, which is a hard character to perform. However, Washington pulls it off effortlessly.
Without having to say a word, I could feel Stallworth’s determination. I could feel his frustration. I could feel his inner conflict. It made me relate to Stallworth even more strongly when he was talking, when he was sharing his crazy but brilliant ideas, and when he finally did feel confident to say what was on his mind. Knowing how to show emotional depth without even saying a word is unbelievably hard, and it takes an unbelievable actor to pull it off and an unbelievable director to know how to direct that.
For every character, the acting and directing are great, but the biggest one I can comment on besides Washington is Adam Driver’s portrayal of Flip Zimmerman. Driver is likable enough as the colleague who reluctantly supports Stallworth’s investigation before he becomes emotionally involved, but the subtle ways he becomes emotionally involved gives his portrayal of Zimmerman a more depressing edge. Driver is not Jewish, but he clearly did his homework on what it’s like to be one in America. When he talks about how he never grew up Jewish and how that helped him fit in, it is poignant and makes the scenes where he must lie about his heritage to fit in with the Klan much tenser.
The remarkable writing makes the other characters more memorable than I was expecting, too. Even the most unlikable characters were usually written in a realistic enough way to be relatable and thought-provoking. The best examples of that are the Klan members and Patrice, the black student union president who also serves as Stallworth’s love interest and source of internal conflict.
It would have been too easy to portray the Klan members as one-dimensional villains or to portray Patrice as being a saint, but instead, “BlacKkKlansman” takes an impressively honest approach to these characters.
The Klansmen are people with personalities, insecurities, and anger issues who have despicable views but have found brotherhood through the Klan. Their hatred is incomprehensible, but it’s impossible not to pity them as people who feel ostracized and cannot cope with change.
Patrice is not completely black and white either. Her desire to fight for the social equality of her race is noble, but some of her beliefs are misguided, too. Specifically, her belief that all cops are pigs and that it’s impossible to change the system from within because the system itself is too corrupt. It’s not unidentifiable since she has been a victim of corrupt policemen, but the noble work of her boyfriend and his colleagues proves that belief is not completely true. Yet, Patrice refuses to accept that, and her narrowmindedness hurts Stallworth.
Considering how charged a topic racism is, Lee truly takes an honorably honest approach in this detailed writing because he understands what the sin behind prejudice really is.
“BlacKkKlansman” teaches us that the sin behind prejudice is not a corrupted system that was originally created to do good or the inherent evil in any one group of people. The sin behind prejudice is the narrowmindedness of people regardless of their system or people group that judges different groups of people by their worst members and refuses to look past their anger, justified or not, to understand the other side or accept each of them as the complicated humans they are. People hate because it’s easy and it doesn’t require them to expand their view of reality. This film teaches that narrowmindedness is wrong no matter who it comes from, and that, ultimately, holding onto those beliefs even when proven wrong is foolish and can lead to tragic consequences.
The ending of the film emphasizes that lesson. I will not tell you what it is, but it proves Lee’s point and gives the audience a depressing reality check. Narrowmindedness still exists and should be taken seriously, or else, there will be more tragic consequences.
The Charlottesville Protests and Riots that ended in the death of one woman and in the injuring of many others were almost exactly a year ago. “BlacKkKlansman” was released on August 10, the anniversary of the first day of those protests. That was was Spike Lee’s intention. His film is the true story that proves that people can fight the prejudice, but the fact that this prejudice still exists over 40 years later proves that this fight is far from over.