The conversation about BlacKkKlansman and the Academy Awards is mostly that it’s Spike Lee’s first nomination for Best Director. This was news to me. How is it possible that Spike Lee, director of Do the Right Thing which has a place on the American Film Institute's most recent “100 Greatest American Films of All Time” (#96, if you’re curious), has never had a best director Oscar nomination? But, as we know, the Oscars have a long-standing diversity problem. If Spike Lee were white, might he already have a few nominations?
BlacKkKlansman is based on a real event in Colorado Springs in the 1970s. A black undercover detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) calls the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, and posing as a white man, expresses interest in joining. A fellow white—and Jewish—police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), pretends to be Ron for in-person interactions while the real Ron continues to communicate with KKK members, including David Duke, on the phone. Together, they infiltrate the Klan and foil a planned bombing.
Like many of Lee’s films, BlacKkKlansman combines drama with comedy, making for an entertaining film with a conscience. It is apparent that this is the product of someone with not just a knack for storytelling, but also many years of filmmaking experience. There are also some positive departures from Lee’s previous well-known films—notably the over-sexualization of female characters. Stallworth’s romantic interest, Patrice (Laura Harrier) is the president of the local Black Student Union. She is intelligent, independent, fully-formed, and fully-clothed.
Lee comes at two prominent films in American cinema: Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). The movie opens with the iconic scene in Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara is searching for the doctor while the camera pans out to capture a field of injured and dead Confederate soldiers—a scene clearly meant to elicit sympathy for the Confederacy, as is true of the entire film.
Birth of a Nation is shown most prominently at the ceremony in which “Ron” (actually Flip) is inducted into the KKK. After the ceremony, the members gather to watch the film and heckle the black characters. When people talk about Birth of a Nation they generally talk about D.W. Griffith’s innovative and influential direction style, but a movie is never that huge without also influencing ideas. The disturbing ideas it influenced are not really talked about but, as is discussed in BlacKkKlansman, Birth of a Nation sparked a resurgence in the KKK.
There are three main components to the film which, taken together, convey a very specific message. One: the scenes from—and conversations about—two films which are cinematically significant and significantly racist. Two: the highly unusual event in which a black man infiltrates the KKK in the 1970s. And three: the most upsetting--that which can’t be cut with any humor: footage from the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 during which a member of the counter-protest died when a white supremacist drove his car into the crowd where she was. The message: racism is an integral, often socially accepted, part of American history and it is not over.
I’ve heard the criticism that this footage at the end is “heavy-handed.” What I think people are saying is that it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s difficult to reckon with. But it happened and I think Lee is saying that we should be intentional and not forget about it. Nor should we forget about our President defending some “very fine people” on the white supremacists’ side (clips from that infamous press conference are featured, as well).
It won’t win best picture but it is a very good film and the additional nominations for best director, best supporting actor (for Adam Driver), adapted screenplay, editing, and score are all well-deserved. Yes, even editing! I complain a lot about the length of movies, but I didn’t really feel this drag much, even at a 2 hour 15 minute run time.
What to make: Ron is a cop, and he and Patrice clash over the use of the term “pigs” so I suggest pigs in blankets. But do your fellow party-goers or guests a favor and elevate the basic “hot dogs on canned crescent dough” route. Use andouille sausage, or add some cheese between the pastry and the sausage. Martha Stewart uses puff pastry and brushes it with honey mustard before baking—that sounds nice. Do something besides dry hot dogs in pastry. People will thank you and praise you.