Film often requires a suspension of disbelief. Star Wars features a 7-foot-tall space wizard walking around in a black S&M outfit choking grown men to death with mental telepathy. When we watch The Exorcist, we need to ignore human anatomy, to accept the idea that a 12-year-old girl can spin her head around 360 degrees without breaking her neck. BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s latest feature, involves what is perhaps an even bigger fantasy. Lee wants us to believe that there are good cops, that while there is of course racism inside the police department of a deeply conservative American city like Colorado Springs, it’s mostly a few bad apples.
All that being said, even though we’re a long way away from the choke hold that killed Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman is not only one of Spike Lee’s best movies. It’s the first great film of the Trump era. Everything that Lee has learned about film over a long career, the use of popular music to recreate the past, a technique he borrowed from Martin Scorsese, the ability to draw great performances out of his actors, the precise attention to detail and the strong sense of place involved in the creation of each set piece, the fascination with grotesque, hateful, yet oddly sympathetic characters, is all on display. BlacKkKlansman runs for well over 2 hours, and it doesn’t have a boring moment.
It’ s 1972. John David Washington, the son of Denzel, plays Ron Stallworth, a Vietnam veteran, and conservative African American. Although he insists he “can speak jive as well as the King’s English,” his default tone of voice recalls Cassius Green’s “white voice” from Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth is no radical malcontent. Upon getting hired by the Colorado Springs police department, he’s initially assigned to a clerical job in the records department before his supervisor realizes that a young black man is more useful doing surveillance work on a local student group, and its star guest speaker, Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael. Spike Lee, who surely knows that Ture was subjected to harassment by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, handles the ambiguity of Stallworth’s position quite well. Even though spying never quite becomes COINTELPRO, and the young black police detective reports back to his superiors that Ture is no threat, that his talk of a race war is mostly just rhetoric, we also feel how Stallworth is drawn to the charismatic Ture and his message, and sense that guilt he feels over how he is quite possibly betraying his own people. When Patrice Dumas, an attractive young college student who organized the event is stopped and frisked, and sexually harassed, by the same racist cop who earlier hassled Stallworth, we begin to wonder why even a conservative black man would want to be a police officer.
We get our answer when Stallworth notices an article in a local newspaper about the Ku Klux Klan. Ron Stallworth isn’t naïve. He understands that police departments, especially in a conservative city like Colorado Springs, are almost always racist institutions designed to protect property and white privilege, but he also thinks he can push against institutional limits and jar law enforcement in the right direction. What follows is basically a utopian fantasy of what American police work would look like if it lived up to its own ideals. What if, for example, the Obama administration had not succumbed to right wing pressure in 2009 and suppressed the FBI’s report on radical right-wing extremism? What if the federal government paid as much attention to the threat of right-wing, extremist terrorism as it did to the threat of Islamic terrorism? Perhaps Heather Heyer, to whom Lee pays a touching homage to at the film’s end, would still be alive. Perhaps the horrifying events that took place in Charlottesville last year never would have happened. Perhaps we would not have a white supremacist like Donald Trump as the President of the United States.
BlacKkKlansman, like most of Lee’s films, explores identity, not the kind identity politics you see on social media, but the cultural building blocks of what makes an American an American. When Stallworth’s partner Phillip Zimmerman, a secular Jew played by Adam Driver, goes to a series of Klan in Stallworth’s place — who quite obviously can’t pass for a WASP – the violent antisemitism of an especially disturbed Klansman forces him to confront an ethnicity and a religion he’s never really understood. “Growing up, I never thought about being Jewish,” he says to Stallworth. “Now I don’t think about anything else.”
Even more interestingly, Lee manages to get into the minds of the Klansmen themselves, and, by extension, Trump’s “base.” Unlike the tall, relaxed Zimmerman, who comes off like a prototypical Ivy League WASP, the local Klansmen remind you of the grotesque white ethnics of Do the Right Thing, uneducated, intellectually limited men, and women, trapped inside an identity that offers them no real cultural or political power. Topher Grace’s David Duke, who wants to take the Klan mainstream, is really nothing more than a lower-middle-class middle manager who aspires to the same bourgeois respectability Zimmerman, and even Stallworth, seem to embody with little or no effort. If Stallworth can speak both the King’s English and Jive, and Zimmerman can speak both redneck — he can shoot better than any of the local Klansman — and educated white American, Duke is limited to a dull, colorless, standard American English. He’s an insignificant little man in a barely respectable store bought three-piece suit who’s bottled up his volcanic white supremacist rage inside the banality of suburban, American evil.