Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman undermines its own message

While Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman purports to expose both the subtle and the blatant aspects of racism in American life, it ends up compromising its characters and its message, beginning with a silly superscription at the start of this movie.

This well acted film, written by Lee with David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott, is based on a real-life story, as told in a memoir by Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first black police officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s.  At first relegated to the file room, Stallworth was "typecast" by the sergeant for an assignment to spy on a black student union-sponsored talk by Stokely Carmichael (who by then had changed his name to Kwame Ture) in order to guard against incitement to violence. 

Ron is obviously moved by Carmichael's talk.  (Actor Corey Hawkins matches Carmichael's charisma.)  But he becomes enamored with student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier).  His pursuit of her becomes complicated by a covert operation, not to mention by his status as a member of the police force, whom she and her cohorts regard as "pigs." 

That covert operation is the main plot of the movie.  After spotting a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) newspaper ad for prospective members, Ron responds by phone and ends up chatting with the local KKK leader.  He uses his "white voice" to make contact but knows full well that he must find a white cop (preferably with a similar voice) to represent him. 

The white cop who partners with him is a Jewish fellow, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who bravely, repeatedly puts himself in harm's way to associate with the local Klansmen, who are quirky but dangerous.  More than once, Ron will take risks, as well, to ensure that Flip is not trapped in a fatal situation.  Ron and Flip even position themselves at a meeting with national Klan leader, David Duke (Topher Grace). 

As it turns out, the Klan has infiltrated a national defense agency, enabling two of its operatives to smuggle out explosives to Colorado Springs with hopes of wreaking havoc and mayhem and, of course, of intimidating and terrorizing black activists.

Both in foreshadowing and depicting Jewish character Flip and for other, not always clear, reasons, the film often mentions Jews and Judaism.  In a Coen Brothers-type prologue about a white "Confederate" supremacist flubbing takes while making a propaganda film, the hate-monger characterizes the Brown decision as "imposed on us by Jewish-controlled puppets on the Supreme Court," and decries "negroes under the tutelage of blood-sucking Jews" as part of an "international Jewish conspiracy."

The film makes sure that even Stokely Carmichael's speech is spiced with Jewish references.  Carmichael quotes Hillel (though without attribution): "If I am only for myself..."  He reminisces about going to afternoon matinees as a child and cheering for Tarzan as he beat up African natives, whom Carmichael would later understand to be his own people.  He compares his Tarzan-boosting to the absurdity of Jews watching Nazis herding Jews to Auschwitz and cheering them.

The film also makes a point of exploring Flip's own ambivalence about being Jewish.

Flip appears to be comfortable with his Jewishness; he wears a Star of David around his neck.  But when Ron asks him if he is Jewish, Flip responds strangely: "I don't know.  Am I?"  Then he explains that he is Jewish but "wasn't raised to be."  He adds that he never thought about being Jewish, never went to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah, but since going undercover with the Klan, he now thinks about it all the time.

Ron feels that he must remind Flip that he is Jewish, a member of the "so-called chosen people."  At one point, he scolds him: "You've been passing as a WASP.  Why are you acting as if you ain't got skin in the game?"

The first question posed to Flip by Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), the most vicious of the local Klansmen, is, "You're not a Jew, are you?  Jews killed Jesus."  Professionally speaking, Flip has to be quick with the denials.  When this same man denies the Holocaust, Zimmerman so needs to convince the him that the Holocaust happened that he tells the man that the Nazis should be congratulated for doing all they can to eliminate an "inferior race."

Felix is poised to ferret out Jews.  He names his rifle "The Jew-Killer."  (The shooting practice scenes are frightening and make the audience fearful for Zimmerman.)  Since, unlike blacks, Jews cannot be identified by skin color, Felix keeps a lie-detector in his basement just in case a "passing" Jew comes into his home.  At one point he wants to examine Flip for circumcision. 

We believe Felix when he says he's not "Jew-friendly."  Even in the intimacy of the marital bed, he woos his wife by assuring her: "First the spooks, then the kikes.  Free at last."  For her part, Felix's wife is anxious to participate fully in any assault on Jews and blacks.  Her self-esteem problems come to the fore in her declaration, "Thanks for loving me, for bringing me into your life, for giving me a purpose.  This will be the new Boston Tea Party."

This movie becomes most suspenseful.  It succeeds as a police drama.  It also demonstrates, with ironic twists and sharp wit, how racism can derail good policing and threaten national security, all the while exploring racism within the police department itself.

But Lee's message regarding racism is hardly consistent.  At one point he has the Klan yell, "White Power," even as the black students shout, "Black Power."  Does he equate the two as extremist ideologies?  When Ron, still hiding his identity, asks Patrice if she thinks the police can overcome racism, she responds that racism is too "systemic" for that.  Yet it would appear that despite lingering racist attitudes even among the more "enlightened" cops, the police department does succeed at putting its own house in order.

There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with keeping these questions open.  The crippling flaw in this film's effectiveness, however, is its blatant subtext, which takes attention away from all the good questions it raises and even from its riveting plot turns.  Because David Duke praised Donald Trump in 2016, and because Donald Trump, in 2017, failed to denounce white supremacist elements at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lee chose to equate Trump and his Republican supporters with the evils of the Klan.  So this movie chooses to culminate in, and to perpetuate, a hate group's opportunism and a president's poor decision.

Consistently throughout the film, we hear talk about David Duke and the Klan trying to get someone in the White House who will challenge immigration and use racism and tax reform to divide citizens, while pushing an "America first" agenda to put America on track again so that it can "achieve greatness again."  But by equating long debated political stances (some of which having been embraced at times by the Democratic Party) with the Klan ideology, Lee trivializes the evil of hate groups.

This film also compromises its own characters, plot, and moral ground by having Ron and other cops pull at the very end something most unprofessional and unbefitting of police officers: responding to a phone call by the David Duke character in order to rub it in and thereby reveal the entire operation.  (Wouldn't such acting up jeopardize future operations?)  Was this lapse in judgment and in protocol done in real life, or was the scene added because of this film's obsession with drawing parallels with current political figures?

Ironically, the issues and questions surrounding the Zimmerman character are more fundamental to the moral and political and even racial implications of BlacKKKlansman than the depiction of Ron Stallworth here.  At one point, Flip says, "I never thought much about being Jewish, but now I think about it all the time – about heritage and rituals.  I have been passing." 

There are a lot of references to Klan rituals here, as to the rituals of the Black Power movement and of protests and counter-protests.  The implication is that since ritual is a part of life with or without religion, the question is what rituals can best combat hate and violence.

While Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman purports to expose both the subtle and the blatant aspects of racism in American life, it ends up compromising its characters and its message, beginning with a silly superscription at the start of this movie.

This well acted film, written by Lee with David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott, is based on a real-life story, as told in a memoir by Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first black police officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s.  At first relegated to the file room, Stallworth was "typecast" by the sergeant for an assignment to spy on a black student union-sponsored talk by Stokely Carmichael (who by then had changed his name to Kwame Ture) in order to guard against incitement to violence. 

Ron is obviously moved by Carmichael's talk.  (Actor Corey Hawkins matches Carmichael's charisma.)  But he becomes enamored with student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier).  His pursuit of her becomes complicated by a covert operation, not to mention by his status as a member of the police force, whom she and her cohorts regard as "pigs." 

That covert operation is the main plot of the movie.  After spotting a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) newspaper ad for prospective members, Ron responds by phone and ends up chatting with the local KKK leader.  He uses his "white voice" to make contact but knows full well that he must find a white cop (preferably with a similar voice) to represent him. 

The white cop who partners with him is a Jewish fellow, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who bravely, repeatedly puts himself in harm's way to associate with the local Klansmen, who are quirky but dangerous.  More than once, Ron will take risks, as well, to ensure that Flip is not trapped in a fatal situation.  Ron and Flip even position themselves at a meeting with national Klan leader, David Duke (Topher Grace). 

As it turns out, the Klan has infiltrated a national defense agency, enabling two of its operatives to smuggle out explosives to Colorado Springs with hopes of wreaking havoc and mayhem and, of course, of intimidating and terrorizing black activists.

Both in foreshadowing and depicting Jewish character Flip and for other, not always clear, reasons, the film often mentions Jews and Judaism.  In a Coen Brothers-type prologue about a white "Confederate" supremacist flubbing takes while making a propaganda film, the hate-monger characterizes the Brown decision as "imposed on us by Jewish-controlled puppets on the Supreme Court," and decries "negroes under the tutelage of blood-sucking Jews" as part of an "international Jewish conspiracy."

The film makes sure that even Stokely Carmichael's speech is spiced with Jewish references.  Carmichael quotes Hillel (though without attribution): "If I am only for myself..."  He reminisces about going to afternoon matinees as a child and cheering for Tarzan as he beat up African natives, whom Carmichael would later understand to be his own people.  He compares his Tarzan-boosting to the absurdity of Jews watching Nazis herding Jews to Auschwitz and cheering them.

The film also makes a point of exploring Flip's own ambivalence about being Jewish.

Flip appears to be comfortable with his Jewishness; he wears a Star of David around his neck.  But when Ron asks him if he is Jewish, Flip responds strangely: "I don't know.  Am I?"  Then he explains that he is Jewish but "wasn't raised to be."  He adds that he never thought about being Jewish, never went to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah, but since going undercover with the Klan, he now thinks about it all the time.

Ron feels that he must remind Flip that he is Jewish, a member of the "so-called chosen people."  At one point, he scolds him: "You've been passing as a WASP.  Why are you acting as if you ain't got skin in the game?"

The first question posed to Flip by Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), the most vicious of the local Klansmen, is, "You're not a Jew, are you?  Jews killed Jesus."  Professionally speaking, Flip has to be quick with the denials.  When this same man denies the Holocaust, Zimmerman so needs to convince the him that the Holocaust happened that he tells the man that the Nazis should be congratulated for doing all they can to eliminate an "inferior race."

Felix is poised to ferret out Jews.  He names his rifle "The Jew-Killer."  (The shooting practice scenes are frightening and make the audience fearful for Zimmerman.)  Since, unlike blacks, Jews cannot be identified by skin color, Felix keeps a lie-detector in his basement just in case a "passing" Jew comes into his home.  At one point he wants to examine Flip for circumcision. 

We believe Felix when he says he's not "Jew-friendly."  Even in the intimacy of the marital bed, he woos his wife by assuring her: "First the spooks, then the kikes.  Free at last."  For her part, Felix's wife is anxious to participate fully in any assault on Jews and blacks.  Her self-esteem problems come to the fore in her declaration, "Thanks for loving me, for bringing me into your life, for giving me a purpose.  This will be the new Boston Tea Party."

This movie becomes most suspenseful.  It succeeds as a police drama.  It also demonstrates, with ironic twists and sharp wit, how racism can derail good policing and threaten national security, all the while exploring racism within the police department itself.

But Lee's message regarding racism is hardly consistent.  At one point he has the Klan yell, "White Power," even as the black students shout, "Black Power."  Does he equate the two as extremist ideologies?  When Ron, still hiding his identity, asks Patrice if she thinks the police can overcome racism, she responds that racism is too "systemic" for that.  Yet it would appear that despite lingering racist attitudes even among the more "enlightened" cops, the police department does succeed at putting its own house in order.

There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with keeping these questions open.  The crippling flaw in this film's effectiveness, however, is its blatant subtext, which takes attention away from all the good questions it raises and even from its riveting plot turns.  Because David Duke praised Donald Trump in 2016, and because Donald Trump, in 2017, failed to denounce white supremacist elements at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lee chose to equate Trump and his Republican supporters with the evils of the Klan.  So this movie chooses to culminate in, and to perpetuate, a hate group's opportunism and a president's poor decision.

Consistently throughout the film, we hear talk about David Duke and the Klan trying to get someone in the White House who will challenge immigration and use racism and tax reform to divide citizens, while pushing an "America first" agenda to put America on track again so that it can "achieve greatness again."  But by equating long debated political stances (some of which having been embraced at times by the Democratic Party) with the Klan ideology, Lee trivializes the evil of hate groups.

This film also compromises its own characters, plot, and moral ground by having Ron and other cops pull at the very end something most unprofessional and unbefitting of police officers: responding to a phone call by the David Duke character in order to rub it in and thereby reveal the entire operation.  (Wouldn't such acting up jeopardize future operations?)  Was this lapse in judgment and in protocol done in real life, or was the scene added because of this film's obsession with drawing parallels with current political figures?

Ironically, the issues and questions surrounding the Zimmerman character are more fundamental to the moral and political and even racial implications of BlacKKKlansman than the depiction of Ron Stallworth here.  At one point, Flip says, "I never thought much about being Jewish, but now I think about it all the time – about heritage and rituals.  I have been passing." 

There are a lot of references to Klan rituals here, as to the rituals of the Black Power movement and of protests and counter-protests.  The implication is that since ritual is a part of life with or without religion, the question is what rituals can best combat hate and violence.