THIS MOVIE IS INCREDIBLE. I'm currently shouting this to anyone who will listen. Of course I expected it to be good -- because, Spike Lee -- but it's incredible on so many levels and for so many reasons that I find myself shouting it over and over again. Listen, I know I can be a hyperbole queen but BlacKkKlansman is just plain powerful. There is power in its depiction of black men and women, in its depiction of black power, and in its depiction of racism (past & present). Even beyond these overt elements, though, there is an overwhelming impression of the power of its medium -- film, mass-produced images, on-screen representation.
BlacKkKlansman details the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late '70s. Using a white fellow officer to attend in person meet-ups, Stallworth (played by John David Washington) talks his way into becoming a card carrying Klansman of the Colorado Springs chapter. As he entrenches himself deeper into the KKK disrupting cross-burnings and other acts of terror and hate, Stallworth finds himself gravitating towards the Black Power movement, and specifically its gorgeously powerful leader, Patrice (Laura Harrier).
What Stallworth quickly learns, and what is visually depicted in perfect clarity via Lee's incredible vision, is that there is no tug between White Power & Black Power -- they are not equal and cannot be treated equally. The Klan and its white supremacist members are fueled by hate, bigotry, and dangerous delusions of divine right. Black Power is a movement of empowering the systemically oppressed, stomping out racism in a country built by racists, and working towards a true equality.
The film's most powerful moment comes during a culmination of two simultaneous meetings -- a KKK induction ceremony & a rally led by the Colorado Black Student Union. As the Klan members sit down to watch D.W. Griffith's Birth of Nation, members of the Black Student Union gather to listen to an elderly black man tell a horrific story from his younger days of a mentally disabled black boy who was falsely convicted of raping a white woman (an all-too familiar scenario for those who are paying attention). Although Birth of a Nation is now (mostly) recognized for the harm it has caused -- it re-invigorated the KKK in the 19teens through its depictions of black people as unintelligent and brutish and its depictions of Klansman as heroes -- it is still regarded for its effectiveness as a film and its overt racism is often softened or overlooked entirely in lieu of its historical relevancy. Lee does not ignore this aspect of Birth, and in acknowledging it he emphasizes the power of film and of filmic representations.
The impact of a film goes beyond its content and extends to the way the content interacts with its audience. As the Klansmen gather to gleefully watch Birth and revel in its racist images, they sit eating popcorn, cheering for the on screen KKK, and laughing at the bumbling characters in blackface. Birth is not an aged and outdated depiction of American values but continues to be used as a tool of hatred and bigotry. Using Griffith's method of rapid crosscutting, Lee switches between scenes of the Klan and scenes of the Black Student Union. It is in this pivotal scene that the comparison solidifies - or rather, that the lack of comparison solidifies - and Lee's meaning is clear: film is powerful, it is affective, its depictions matter.
BlacKkKlansman is entertaining as a dark comedy about a black man infiltrating a racists white organization, but its power comes from the way it interacts with its audience, the comparisons it forces us to make visually and mentally, and its constant reminder of crucial relevancy. Lee's final meditation on recent Nazi gatherings, the rise of white supremacy, and the danger of a president who, at the very least, ignores the bolster he receives from its members, is a final reminder of the power of images. Racism is not a black vs. white issue -- white power & black power are not comparable -- it is an issue that threatens the fabric of our country and that is currently relevant to everyone who does not identify with the Klansmen's messages of hate and violence.