With no movie houses open, a friend and I decided about a month ago to watch a bunch of Spike Lee films in chronological order. For me, most of these viewings were first time events. I’d tried to watch “BlacKkKlansman” shortly after it became available on Netflix, but at that time, I just couldn’t deal with all the horrible names black people were called as Lee set the scene with “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” moments. Now I’ve watched the whole movie and had a lively discussion with my friend, part of which I want to write about because I think Lee is doing something important about skin color as a major determinant of identity. Ron Stallworth, a black man hired into the overwhelmingly white police force in Colorado Springs, is sent under cover to a speech by Stokely Carmichael just as he was becoming known as Kwame True. Intrigued by some of what he heard, Ron pushes his superior officer to let him investigate the Ku Klux Klan. He will speak by telephone with local Klansmen (and eventually to David Duke, the Grand Wizard) while a white fellow officer, Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, will meet with and become accepted by the group.
One of the first things about this story that draws me is this doubleness. No black man could possibly become a member of the KKK, so Flip is crucial as the public face of this investigation. But the intelligence driving the investigation is a black officer who teachers his white twin how to use negative epithets about black people that will appeal to the Klan: “monkey,” “coon,” “mongrel,” and, foremost, “nigger.” What Flip isn’t ready for, however, once he is in a room with Klan members, is the flood of similarly awful epithets about Jews yelled out at him. Flip is Jewish but has never thought about it, thinking of himself as just another white man. In the movie, it’s when he has to say all the awful words about his tribe that he awakens to being Jewish in a country that lumps his sort in with blacks and gays.
Once accepted into the local chapter, Ron emerges as a future leader since his vicious racist rants over the telephone and in person convince the current head that he’s found a replacement. We then get a serious of fierce and hilarious telephone calls between black Ron and David Duke in which Lee makes a telling point about the role of language in a racial world. “They” surely don’t talk the same as “we” to white supremacists. So Ron goads David who declares that he can tell he’s speaking to a proper white man: Ron asks Duke to give him an example of how he can be so sure and Duke says it’s in how Ron says “are.” White people just say a one-syllable word–ARE–while “coons” say “ARE-UH,” making it a two-syllable word and giving themselves away to people like him and Ron. Lee’s edgy humor at the ridiculousness of this logic lets our black policeman win the day.
As long as the Klansmen can’t SEE “Ron,” all the black twin has to do is mimic speech and emotional disgust. So, when black Ron is sent to guard David Duke who is visiting Colorado Springs to initiate white Ron into the group, Lee’s point about skin color takes center stage. Duke is horrified to have to accept anything from one of “them,” so when black Ron asks white Ron to take a picture of him with “Mr. Duke,” revulsion overtakes the Grand Wizard. He feels physically defiled to have been touched by a member of the racial group he would like to obliterate from the face of the earth. (At one point in the movie, Duke says what they need to do is get someone elected to the White House so things can get settled properly. Surely this comment is not lost on anyone watching the movie in 2020 America.)
Finally, Lee once again, as in several other of his films, presents in clear terms how women are treated by many men. The Klansmen are fiercely homosocial, though we do meet the wife of the head of the chapter. Of course, she has subjugated herself completely to “her man,” fawning over him as he barely acknowledges her presence for most of the movie. Several times, she reminds him that she stands ready to help him/them at any time and in any way. So late in the film, when the Klan decides to put an explosive in the mailbox of black Ron’s home, it is the wife who volunteers. When it is she who gets caught by the police for blowing up a car–she can’t squeeze the explosive into the mailbox and frantically finds a Plan B so she can finally do something for her husband, I credit Lee with showing us that the men may talk loudly about how they hate all blacks, but they don’t do anything the least bit risky, leaving that to the woman they have ignored and erased.
The two actors playing private and pubic Ron Stallworth develop a friendship that is strong and believable. What Lee has done in this movie, in my estimation, is demonstrate that skin color may make all the difference in a radicalized culture, two individual people can work through, around, and out of that confining and destructive box. So Ron and Flip are the huge winners, even if their very white bosses make them drop the investigation and destroy all the evidence of what they’ve found about the odious KKK members in their community.