I wasn’t exactly sure how a Spike Lee and a Jordan Peele mashup would turn out, but let me tell you, it was a thing of beauty. Just as there were black authors with different voices (Maya Angelou, James Baldwin), black activists with different viewpoints (Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois), and black politicians with different tactics (Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X), there are black filmmakers with different styles.
Spike Lee is known for hard-hitting, statement-making, black power films, whereas Jordan Peele has a comedy background (“Key and Peele”) - although, he proved his prowess in biting social commentary with last year’s “Get Out,” which was, in my humble opinion, the best film of 2017. I wasn’t sure if this combo was going to be amazing or awkward, and thankfully, it was the former.
“Blackkklansman” manages to brilliantly weave racial activism, humor, and a gut-wrenching call to action into a compelling period piece. Set in the 1970s and based on a true story, “Blackkklansman” is about Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After experiencing rather blatant racism in the department, Ron (John David Washington - Denzel Washington’s son), calls the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan out of boredom and expresses an interest in joining. This results in Ron and his white (and Jewish) partner, Flip (Adam Driver), running an undercover operation to infiltrate the KKK.
Along the way, Flip must question his own identity as a “passing” Jew whose whiteness was never called into question until he “joined” the KKK and found himself having to “hate” Jews on a daily basis. The film rather interestingly begins with a clip of Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind” stepping over the dead bodies of many Confederate soldiers. The Civil War had the highest death toll among all American soldiers (including World War II), reminding us just how hard half our country fought to make sure slavery remained an institution.
“Blackkklansman” is so compelling because it covers all aspects of the racial narrative; as a mixed-race person of color myself, I found a lot of it familiar. Some racial activists, like the character of Patrice (the leader of the black student union and Ron’s love interest) take a hard stance, distrust the police and fully support the concept of black power. Other characters like Ron, who chose to be a cop despite the tense history between the police and the black community, do their best to reform racism from the inside. These two forces often clash and bitterly. Patrice remarks with near hatred that just as Ron has a job as a cop, “house” slaves also had a “job,” effectively calling him an “Uncle Tom” and traitor who chose to work for the white man. Ron resentfully remarks that he can simultaneously care about black people and be a cop, working to reform the system within its rules. In my own experience, this difference of opinion has always been and is one of the biggest dividing factors in communities of color. Flip’s story is also familiar to me, as a person who is often mistaken for white, and for whom race never seemed to matter until later in life.
Of course, because Jordan Peele was involved, “Blackkklansman” is also very funny. Certain scenes involving David Duke (former grand wizard of the KKK), who is a main character, are absolutely hilarious.
The end of the film delivers a one-two punch surprise, courtesy of Spike Lee. We seemingly are presented with a triumph over racism, but then are poignantly reminded that racism is still very real in 2018 and the battle is far from over. This is definitely on the must-see list.