“BlacKkKlansman” opens with the Confederate flag flying in “Gone With the Wind”, still the best-selling film ever when counting inflation. Then it quickly moves to the very deliberate casting of Saturday Night Live Trump parody Alec Baldwin stammering his way through a filmed reel of white supremacist propaganda. About midway into the film, hero cop protagonist Ron Stallworth dismisses a point made about how things depicted in cinema can affect culture with “it’s just a movie”. He defends movies with black cop protagonists as empowering, and continually has to defend his own position as a cop as being part of the movement for black power, not against it. Self-loathing is examined through the prism of “Tarzan” films. David Duke eventually presides over a screening of “The Birth of a Nation” to an enraptured Ku Klux Klan chapter, who are energised and encouraged by the film.
Clearly, depiction in film is an important subject to Spike Lee, and is explored in varied ways throughout the film. What’s interesting is how the film itself does and doesn’t reflect the utility of this. Direct lines of equivalance are drawn to the present day in a way that rejects any sort of escapist or “it’s just a cop story from the 70s!” type of reading; straight lines are drawn from the USA then to the USA now. And there are scenes that deal with the tense duality and tension in being an apparent pro black power cop – Stallworth is regularly called out on it, is party to inherent supremacy in the police, and his Jewish partner undergoes an understated character arc about grappling with how ignoring racial identity and its role in society doesn’t make it any less tangible.
But as it moves to its ending, the film increasingly reduces the nuance in the police force and whitewashes it, relegating all the racism to one cop who is joyfully thrown out of a clean-handed force. The literal untruth of this as per the real accounting of events isn’t so much called to mind as the way the film falls into part of what it was criticising, selective and simplistic reduction of racial issues to sell a narrative that’s comforting to rally to. It’s interesting to consider the film in the context of Spike Lee’s own career, as its protagonist attempts to work in a historically racist societal force and produce righteous results and transformation within that, but the reduction of context and nuance towards the end mutes all that in disappointing ways.
What initially feels like repudation of centrist “but both sides…!” sentiment regarding black power groups and the Ku Klux Klan ends up feeling unnervingly earnest, as Stallworth (whose real life counterpart worked in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that sought to disempower and dismantle black power and other radical groups) is party to exaggerations and reductions that paint a bright picture of the police. The very end of the film snarls at dogwhistle racism and the artificial idea that society is somehow naturally moving past it. I wish the whole film did that too. At least it gets people talking and thinking. Three and a half crosses reflected burning in an eye, and a swelling guitar score.