In the days after the last presidential election, it was impossible to forecast that the country would spring backward at such incredible speed, both in word and deed. No matter one’s politics, in the wake of eight years of President Obama’s intellect and poise, we simply weren’t prepared for the stunning reality of a new leader with a determination to offend African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, women, immigrants, transgender people, Gold Star families, people with disabilities, Black professional athletes and their mamas—nearly everyone. The times seemed impossibly dark, yet even then few imagined the coming of a modern day race war.
But we should have remembered that the Ku Klux Klan and all the other Nazi-loving, hate-filled groups hadn’t gone anywhere. We should have known that the horrendous events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended with the violent death of 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer, could happen. On August 12, 2017, not even a year into the Trump presidency, hundreds of neo-Nazis, neo-fascists and assorted Klansmen descended on the bustling college town for a rally called “Unite the Right.” They declared, among other menacing slogans, “Jews will not replace us.” The president promptly placed blame on hatred emanating from “many sides,” even as he insisted there were some “very fine people” among the marchers. This is America.
BlacKkKlansman, the Spike Lee Joint released on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, is an urgent, sobering reminder that in this country on the matter of race, the past can be shamefully indicative of the present. Shot on film instead of digitally for a more authentic visual effect and set in the early 70s, BlacKkKlansman is based on the riveting personal narrative of Ron Stallworth, the first African American man to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. His book of the same title, but spelled as two words, Black Klansman, was released in 2015. It’s almost impossible to believe the circumstances portrayed in the book and film. Without offering too many spoilers, know that the white supremacist sentiments captured were (and are) very real, but the story is stranger-than-fiction. Lee admitted as much when fellow filmmaker Jordan Peele first brought the story to him. “I was thinking this sounds like that Dave Chappelle skit,” Lee told the audience at Cannes, where BlacKkKlansman premiered internationally and took the top prize in May. “I said, ‘Is this true?’”
It was true. And in real life, Stallworth’s infiltration and investigation of the Klan was a thing of genius. Posing by phone as a racist White man eager to gain Klan membership and join their new Colorado chapter, and using a White, secretly Jewish partner to play him during actual in-person Klan meetings, Stallworth was able to convince David Duke—that David Duke—then head of the KKK, to personally expedite his membership. Unbeknownst to the hate-filled group and its notorious white supremacist leader, Duke had granted a Black man official card-carrying membership to the cross-burning cause. Once Stallworth is officially invited to be a part of the bigoted band of brothers, the plot thickens like molasses.
BlacKkKlansman is true Lee at his hyper-focused best—centered on twin topics of race and power, and telling a single, dynamic story. Fans will be overjoyed at the layers of Spikeisms nestled deep within the two hours and 15-minute experience. From a cameo of his most classic line ever—“Wake up!”—to his famous glide-to-camera, slow-motion, close-up shot, to the clever use of modern-day footage in a period piece, Spike Lee the agitator, sociologist and cultural critic is back, ya dig?
Most noteworthy is the film’s beautiful, clean cinematography. Lee shared that he was looking for a young director of photography and he landed on Chayse Irvin, also known as the dude who shot Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. As with that masterpiece, BlacKkKlansman also displays an amazing use of color—and of light. You’ve just got to see the dreamy halos that circle every Afro in the film.
Finally, Lee’s stars—John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, and the stunningly intoxicating newcomer Laura Harrier, who plays activist and love interest Patrice—make this an enjoyable trip around a painful topic. Young love is almost always fun to watch, but when it’s peppered with heated debates about Black liberation and “the pigs,” it’s somehow all the more enchanting. It won’t be lost on the viewer that Washington, like his father Denzel before him, has a synergetic relationship with Lee as a director. Scene by scene, he blossoms into an increasingly complex—and comical— character, one who is at first oddly unfamiliar, but who will later remind you of your favorite cousin who happens to be on the force.
When asked at Cannes about the spot-on timing of BlacKkKlansman against the pressing backdrop of contemporary American racial discord and violence, Lee response was funny-not funny. “I do not have the crystal ball, even though my friends call me Negrodamus,” he joked. Then he got real. “I was in Martha’s Vineyard when Charlottesville happened,” he said. “That ending was not written. But in a Spike Lee Joint you gotta flow. You gotta flow.”
Kierna Mayo (@kiernamayo) is an award-winning writer. She’s currently writing a memoir about being a Black woman in media.