One day, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an undercover detective and the first African American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, decides to call up the Ku Klux Klan in response to an advertisement the organization placed in the local newspaper. After proving his bona fides with a hilarious diatribe leveled against all non-Aryan populations, Ron is invited to a membership meeting. Because he obviously can’t show up in person, he enlists the help of Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play the racist Christian to Ron’s sweet-talking Cyrano. And were this movie not based upon a true story, we might be tempted decry such obvious symbolism, so rife with literary dichotomies. The paradoxes woven into Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman,” though, run as deep as those underlying the American experiment itself.
Just what kind of movie is “Blackkklansman”? Well, Spike Lee gives us plenty to laugh about with his fish-out-of-water black detective suddenly finding himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the comedic elements never dilute the aura of menace surrounding the project of white supremacy. Likewise, while “Blackkklansman” bears all the trappings of an odd-couple, buddy-cop film, it remains forever conscious of the fact that police departments constitute a microcosm of larger power relationships in society as a whole. The movie remains committed to both the conventions of genre and the necessity of interrogating the wider world. The result is a hilarious, thrilling story that entertains splendidly while constructing a rich thematic tapestry that will provide hours and days of contemplation afterward.
There is a lot going on in “Blackkklansman.” For example, Lee interrogates the practice of “passing.” Over the telephone, Ron hides his race, passing as white, but he also hides his occupation from Patrice (Laura Harrier), his girlfriend and the president of the Colorado College black student union, who views all cops as the vanguard of racist oppression. Meanwhile, his partner, Flip, is allowed entrance to white spaces only by concealing his Jewish heritage. The movie opens with a clip of “Gone With the Wind” and draws its own stylistic inspiration from the black cinema of the 1970s, exploring how white supremacy has been both romanticized and repudiated on film. And, through character contrasts like the one between Patrice and Klan wife Connie Hendrickson (played by Little Rock native Ashlie Atkinson) it asks how these representations reflect — and are reflections of — attitudes toward women and their own role in various movements.
But in what constitutes the thematic climax of the movie, Lee flips back and forth between a KKK initiation ceremony and a meeting of the local black student union. The Klan ceremony includes a sermon on Christian virtue and the purity of the white race, followed by a viewing of the 1915 film that inspired the Klan itself, “The Birth of a Nation.” The black student meeting, meanwhile, features the elderly Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) narrating his eyewitness story of the brutal 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Each gathering ends with the respective shouts of “White Power!” or “Black Power!”
It has long been a staple of middle-class, middle-path white rhetoric to see proclamations of black power as racist in their own right. In 1992, Bill Clinton even compared black artist Sista Souljah to former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke for her criticisms of white supremacist culture. Lee rather audaciously dares his viewers to endorse this pairing, to draw equivalencies between Black Power’s lament over the historical reality of atrocity and White Power’s demand for the historical privilege of violence, domination and oppression. To see these as comparable is to misunderstand their respective origins and — functionally, at least — to endorse white supremacy.
The Klan calls itself the Invisible Empire, but as philosopher Charles W. Mills has argued, white supremacy itself constitutes our unrecognized founding political tradition. In other words, the Klan is, ironically, the most visible manifestation of what all too often remains invisible. Our heroes in “Blackkklansman” may wrap up this one case, but at the end they stand staring into the darkness with guns drawn against the savage ghosts who haunt this land. Be they clad in white hoods or three-piece suits, the Klan is riding again, and we have to be ready for it.