Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.
‘BlacKkKlansman,’ a cinematic parable
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot
October 8, 2018
In Spike Lee’s latest film “BlacKkKlansman” a young African American police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs, Colorado, becomes involved in an improbable sounding plot. He reads an ad in the local newspaper for persons interested in joining the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Along with a European American cop from his squad who stands in for him in in-person meetings, he steadily engages the local KKK members through his phone calls and his colleague’s infiltration of the chapter during meet-ups and meetings.
The film is based on the true story of Officer Ron Stallworth who successfully applied for and gained membership in the KKK, complete with an official membership card. Stallworth even spoke by phone a few times with David Duke, the KKK’s “National Director,” aka Grand Wizard!
Stallworth and his fellow officers wind up foiling the local KKK’s efforts, though as the film demonstrates, the victory is hard-won and short-lived. To this day, Duke and fellow white supremacist organizations continue their efforts to intimidate and eliminate—a painful reminder of the latitude extended by the First Amendment and its subsequent interpretation.
“BlacKkKlansman” is particularly resonant in these times and was released the same weekend as the first anniversary of the tumult in Charlottesville, Virginia. Further, the film engages questions of “dog whistle” rhetoric in the present day where equivocation in high places seems to condone more than condemn racist acts and words.
In the film’s latter act, the narrative alternates between the local KKK chapter, with Duke in attendance, conducting an induction of their new member “Ron Stallworth,” the undercover white colleague of the real Stallworth posing as their supposed ally, and the local campus Black Student Union holding a meeting.
After their induction ceremony, the Klansmen host a bizarre sort of movie night where they are joined by their spouses for a viewing, popcorn included, of “The Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film about the Civil War and its aftermath. In the film, Klansmen are the heroes, and African Americans are portrayed by white actors in blackface.
Meanwhile, the BSU welcomes an elderly man played by the venerable Harry Belafonte, who recounts the true cost of the post-Civil War era and the derailed Reconstruction efforts. He speaks of an African American man’s lynching being treated as a grand social gathering, with children dismissed from school to witness it and popular postcards of the victim’s body sold afterwards. In a reverent and slow manner, the old man unveils the history that “The Birth of a Nation” whitewashes with its yearning to return to the grand days of the antebellum South.
In “BlacKkKlansman” as “The Birth of a Nation” reaches its zenith, the Klansmen and their guests rise up with salutes and shouts, appealing to the dominance of white power. In contrast, Belafonte ends his story of lynching and violence with a call to the students to embrace blackness and the power that comes from affirming their dignity and their rights. The issue of violent versus nonviolent methods does come up as the characters are at rallies and protests, yet in comparison, the BSU students wrestle with the ethics far more than the anger-fueled, violent-methods-only Klansmen.
One could claim both groups are caught up in the euphoria, self-authenticating their status and the narratives they embrace. As with any ideology, one is well advised to measure the costliness and the dividends. The Klansmen repeat the centuries’ worn pathway of white supremacy, seeking answers steeped in terror and other deathly afflictions. The BSU students seek a world that is just and liberating, conceiving of a worldview where their full personhood is able to flourish.
Spike Lee does not miss the moment to present these lessons as a cinematic parable drawn from the recent past. In the film’s final moments, footage from the chaotic August 2017 weekend in Charlottesville looms large. The real David Duke appears in news footage, rallying the troops to seize the moment to turn things back into a glorified past.
Spike Lee does not miss the moment to present these lessons as a cinematic parable drawn from the recent past. In the film’s final moments, footage from the chaotic August 2017 weekend in Charlottesville looms large.
Sitting in an upstate New York theatre during the opening weekend of “BlacKkKlansman,” I wondered which narrative will be embraced in this current day: To join those chanting “blood and soil” and marching with torches? Or to tell the truth in all its painful multiple layers (ironic, hidden and contradictory alike) and work toward atonement and reconciliation so that a more liberating future can be brought to the fore?
The lessons of the past are never too distant from our day, especially in light of how blithely, easily and willfully the past’s mistakes can be repeated.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
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