MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver.
I have long admired the films of Spike Lee and consider him to be one of our most gifted filmmakers. When it comes to issues around race, his filmography boasts no fewer than 21 movies that deal with this subject, including heartfelt documentaries and prophetic cries for justice and understanding, with my personal favorites being Chi-Raq, Get on the Bus, Malcolm X and his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
So why did I find BlackKkKlansman so underwhelming? The screenplay is based on Ron Stallworth’s (Washington) memoir Black Klansman, which tells the true story about how Stallworth, the first black detective hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, answered a classified ad in the newspaper designed to recruit new members into the Ku Klux Klan. Ron does a bit of mild code switching on a telephone call to sound enthusiastically white. He is invited to come to an introductory meeting. Since the police department wants to keep Klan activity under observation (and having a black man show up for the meet and greet is considered a bad idea), another detective, “Flip” Zimmerman (Driver) is recruited to be the public face of Ron Stallworth. Together, they slowly work their way into the system and on the road to meet the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace).
This intriguing premise creates plenty of room for intense drama and dark comedy, but BlacKkKlansman overplays its hand right from the start with a short film featuring the mutterings of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) recording the soundtrack for a racist filmstrip. After the real story begins and we see Ron attempt to talk his way into the Klan, he will repeat many of these same phrases, including using the N-word as a “white” man. When Flip reluctantly begins to appear at meetings, he encounters the prejudice hurled at Jews. Since he is known as Ron Stallworth and not Flip Zimmerman, his Jewish roots are also undercover, but he cannot ignore the hurt that he feels inside.
As the film progresses and we meet more members of the Klan, things become more awkward and more obvious. Lee uses D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (a cinematic masterpiece from 1915 that is also a feature-length defense of racism, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan”) two times in this movie. The second time is a home screening for Klan members that includes their call and response to scenes of carnage and lynching. To imagine a bunch of bigots sitting through a 3-hour silent movie boggles my imagination.
John David Washington (the son of Denzel Washington) and Adam Driver are very good in their roles, with a fine performance by Laura Harrier as a student group organizer in relationship with Ron.
The film’s conclusion (which I won’t spoil here) is one in which Spike underlines, highlights, and prints in bold capital letters what your takeaway from viewing BlacKkKlansman should be. If you like films in which you are told what to think rather than given a chance to make up your own mind, this is the film for you.
My defense for this film (in spite of my problems with it) is that it is likely Spike Lee’s attempt to reach a mixed-race audience with his message of righteous indignation. I cannot imagine that people of color need to be told that racism is a daily reality. But I also doubt that this film will cause much of a stir with regular white moviegoers who will choose a different film at the multiplex – The Equalizer 2, perhaps – featuring a black vigilante and no message about interracial strife.
Yes, it is a sad commentary that the people of God have held onto racism for so very long. It is hot-wired into our engine since the Old Testament. Jesus was rejected by his hometown crowd by challenging another way of life.
God bless Spike Lee. Even a misfire like BlacKkKlansman reveals his desire to lead his audience to higher ground, and for that I am very thankful, indeed.
Four halos: A well-intentioned but overwrought polemic against racism...
Five pitchforks: (...that includes much offensive racist and Anti-Semitic epithets; scenes of brutal violence (including documentary footage); pervasive strong language.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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