This film review of BlacKkKlansman appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 16 August 2018.
Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, based on the book Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Jasper Pääkkönen
Few films resonate with the American “current political moment” of increased overt racism and demonisation of minorities as Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman”. The film opened this week, purposefully aligned to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Just to be certain we don’t miss the point, Lee – a film-maker never accused of subtlety – ends “BlacKkKlansman” with graphic news footage from that event, including violent confrontations and President Trump’s “good people” comment. In the cinema preview when I saw the film, the audience didn’t emit a sound: we all “got” the point.
Set in 1972, “BlacKkKlansman” tells the incredible-but-true story of the how the first African-American policeman to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel, complete with large rounded “Afro”) successfully joined the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth needs a white guy to “play” him in person with the Klan, so works closely with Jewish fellow policeman “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew whose awareness of his religious identity grows as the film progresses. Unlike Stallworth, Zimmerman can “pass” as a white Christian, even though Jews are number two on the KKK enemies list. Flip almost too convincingly plays the role of antisemite while being challenged possibly being Jewish: his response to a Holocaust denier where he excitedly elaborates on the achievements of the Holocaust is chilling in the extreme.
From it’s opening moments with a clip from “Gone with the Wind”, “BlacKkKlansman” illustrates its themes with powerful imagery, marking it as one of the best cinema releases this year (it won the “Grand Prix” at Cannes in May, and is running 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). A fictional white power character played by Alec Baldwin (the actor who plays President Trump on “Saturday Night Live”) rages straight to camera how “blood-sucking” Jews sponsor the “commie” civil-rights movement.
The language is shocking, but the message – repeated during the film numerous times in different ways – is clear: racism and antisemitism are integrally connected. Spike Lee has not previously been known for his sensitivity to Jewish issues – his “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) stereotyped Jews as untrustworthy capitalists – but “BlacKkKlansman” marks new ground. The film’s two original writers – David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel – are both Jewish. They placed the Jewish condition front and centre in the story, including making the Flip character Jewish (which he was not in real life). Lee took their original story and ran with it, both emphasising and deepening the connection. The result is a well-argued plea for black-Jewish rapprochement and partnership, one of the best in decades.
One of the film’s most Jewish moments occurs with no Jews on screen: an articulate speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a black radical previously known as Stokely Carmichael, quotes Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” He then adds a fourth question, summing up the movie’s message: “And if not you, who?”
An upside down American flag – an officially recognised signal of dire distress – fills the screen at the film’s very end, and the colours slowly turn from red, white and blue to black and white. The effect is both profound and thought-provoking, underscoring Lee’s urgency of the moment.
The direction, acting and casting in “BlacKkKlansman” are all exquisite. Although the white supremacists are sometimes played as naïve fools (watch Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke), they are deadly fools, as a bombing subplot illustrates. The setting looks nothing like Colorado (in was shot in upstate New York), but no matter. This film is a strong drama about American racism (watch the scene where the undercover Ron Stallworth is beaten up by fellow policemen for being black), with numerous comic overtones and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Jewish journalist Abraham Riesman has written a passionate essay on why “’BlackkKlansman’ is required viewing for Jews”. I agree.
Read my review of Spike Lee’s film “25th Hour”, released in June 2003.