If I were to tell you that the Klu Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by a group of Scottish – American former Confederate soldiers would you believe me? The reason I bring this up is with my shared Scottish & African heritage I have always found the formation of the Klan & those responsible for unleashing the hate group of all hate groups upon us as something mildly amusing & ironic.
The Klans original members would have probably found it quite funny as well. You see, The Klan was originally borne out of boredom. That’s right. America’s most reviled terrorist movement began life as little more than a social club looking to provide entertainment to young white males. They were a fraternity of pranksters. One of the most terrifying things in regards to The KKK is within about a year, those relatively harmless ethos were abandoned & the group set out to prevent freedmen in Southern States from voting.
The suppression continued until the early 1870s, where it appeared for all the World that The Klan would be a mere foot note in American history. Sadly another American of Scottish decent, Thomas Dixon had other ideas. In 1905, Dixon’s novel The Clansman introduced the terrifying burning cross symbol into KKK mythology. Up until this point it had been nothing to do with the Klan. Ten years later the story was adapted by ‘’The Godfather of Cinema’’ D.W. Griffiths into a racist propaganda ‘’masterpiece’’, The Birth of a Nation. At this stage The KKK’s numbers were dwindling. Amazingly the release of this film & it’s whitewashing (pun intended)of The Civil War & it’s aftermath led to a resurgence of the group as well as other atrocities (more on that later). At the height of it’s popularity, The Klan boasted about two million members.
Now this preamble leads us nicely into my review of Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman. Based on a true (sort of) life tale. There is an equally startling & hilarious scene as the movie comes to a close where The Grand Wizard of The KKK, David Duke (played by the outstanding Topher Grace) & his cohorts shovel down popcorn & hoot at a large projector that beams The Birth of a Nation back at them.
Of course the real hero in this story isn’t Duke but Ron Stallworth played by John David Washington(Denzel Washington’s son) a undercover Colorado Springs cop who manages to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. What makes this feat even more impressive is the fact that Ron is black. How was it possible for a black police officer to go undercover in the KKK you ask? Well it was & it wasn’t. Ron’s partner, Flip Zimmerman (the very non-black Adam Driver) would attend all Klan meetings in place of Stallworth. Ron would keep the ruse going by talking to the Klan on the phone.
In fact thats how the whole operation begins. Ron calls up KKK associate, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) impresonating a very pissed off white man ‘’my sister is dating a nigger’’ & soon detective Stallworth finds himself chatting away to the good old grand wizard himself, David Duke. Now Duke is something of a peculiar duck. He blurts out lines such as ‘’America First’’ (sound familiar) & he was for a very long time seen as the ‘’respectable’’ face of the white supremacist movement.
Ron & Flips investigation hurtles forward. Our strange partnership soon uncover an sinister plot that may endanger, Ron’s pig hating girlfriend Patrice Dumar (the outstanding Laura Harrier) life.
When Duke comes to town, Ron & subsequently Flips cover threatens to be blown. Can the two men keep one step ahead of the dim witted Klan or will they be met with a grisly fate? You won’t find out here. This is an almost spoiler free review.
In saying that are we allowed to talk a little about the films remarkable ending? If you’ve followed the news closely in the last year or so, you might see it coming. Lee draws parallels with the past & present with a montage of haunting & tear inducing images. He pulled off the same masterstroke in Malcolm X & Bamboozled.
BlacKkKlansman won this years Grand Prix @ Cannes & it has been hailed as a return to form for Spike Lee. This writer takes issue with this idea that Lee’s form had deserted him. Passover? Rodney King? Chi-Raq? All cracking Spike Lee joints that were released in the not too distant past.
What I won’t dispute is this, BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most commercial film in ages. It treads the line brilliantly between black comedy & routine police procedural. A few gold statues will be waiting for Lee & his cast come awards season.
Now one last thing. The most harrowing moment of the film for me is when Jerome Turner (Henry Belenfonte), recounts the shocking tale of Jesse Washington. Jesse was a teenage black farmhand who was lynched in rural Texas in 1917. A crowd of over ten thousand people watched as Jesse was dismembered & burned alive. Coincidentally A Birth of a Nation had came out the year before.
Spike Lee isn’t trying to give us a heavy handed history lesson here. He is invested in the power of cinema. He believes in it’s ability to move & to mobilize. Griffiths film inspired thousands, upon thousands to commit the most heinous acts in order to preserve their own twisted sense of race & identity.
What he hopes with BlacKkKlansman is that we leave the cinema angry & energised. He wants us to remember Jesse’s tragic death & a young women who faced their own lynching (wait for the movies ending) just last year.
In 2018, Spike Lee is telling us that very little has changed. That’s the tragedy of BlacKkKlansman. One hundred & fifty two years ago, a group of Scotsmen established The KKK. How many of us could have ever imagined that the racial issues many faced back then would be still prevalent today?
BlacKkKlansman is this decades finest & most essential joint. Don’t forget to go see it.
BlacKkKlansman is out now in all good cinemas.
Check out the trailer below.