In the time since Donald Trump was elected US President, a number of theories have emerged within the greater public consciousness to justify this turn of events: it was the Russians; it was Hillary’s emails; it was the weird US electoral system that no one really understands. Underlying each of these explanations, of course, is the myth: that no one could have seen this horrible situation coming. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is an indictment of this myth.
His film is the true story of the first black cop to join the Colorado Springs police force in the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who, with his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) goes undercover to infiltrate the KKK. Quickly revealing both the open racism of the local community and the complete apathy and complicity of their superiors, the investigation also indicates that white supremacy is not waning – and, instead, steadily working its way into the mainstream.
Despite its period setting, BlacKkKlansman is spectacularly direct in connecting the dots between Stallworth’s story and the current American political situation. KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (played with chilling geniality by Topher Grace) even expresses a desire to Make America Great Again.
Lee’s lack of subtlety regarding these connections may be entertaining – many members of our predominantly white audience roared with laughter at these moments – but it is also brimming with impatience: the urgency to spell out what is really going on for those still under the illusion that Trump is an aberration and not a symptom of long brewing, purposefully neglected racial animus.
BlacKkKlansman may be the most accessible, and perhaps most entertaining, work of Lee’s latter day career but it is also his most important. An epilogue, in the form of news footage from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed (an event which BlacKkKlansman’s release coincides with and commemorates), is a perfect, sobering conclusion to a truly scathing critique of a culture and a history that created the world we see today.