Early in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs PD’s newly-hired, first black officer, attends a student meeting were Kwame Ture (formerly “Stokely Carmichael”) is speaking. Stallworth is undercover, taking the temperature of the crowd, because the police chief is concerned that Ture will instigate violence in the city. Ture was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s, so Stallworth knows of him, but he is no devotee. He doesn’t even know that Ture has changed his name from “Stokely Carmichael” to Kwame Ture to better reflect his African heritage.
So his undercover work at the Ture rally is a revelation to Stallworth. It appears, in the film, that this is his first exposure to concepts Ture famous for developing, including “Black Power” and “institutional racism.” It’s a conversion scene, of sorts, shot in a call-and-response style, with shots of Ture (Corey Hawkins, brief but magnificent) on stage behind a lectern delivering powerful oratory alternating with shots of faces in the crowd responding to his words both with looks of awe and voiced affirmations. Spike Lee frames Ture on stage, lit by the lights in the room, but he isolates the faces in the crowd. They are lit only from the front, as if Ture’s words are a dawn drawing them out of the darkness. Often there are two or three faces illuminated on the screen at once, individuated and yet together. The light of knowledge yields a new collective consciousness, and Stallworth slowly, over the course of the evening, though he is reluctant at first, steps into the light. He cannot look away.
When he returns to work, he is changed. He was always resistant to the ways some of his fellow officers dehumanized him and other black men, but now he decides to press against the institutional racism that feared the gathering of young black men and women by working to expose the actual violent threat in the community – the Ku Klux Klan, which openly recruits in the local newspaper. That’s the plot of the film, how Stallworth and his fellow officer, Flip Zimmerman (a low-wattage Adam Driver), infiltrate the KKK, befriend David Duke, and prevent the Klan from doing some truly horrible things. But the tension in the story is rooted in that Kwame Ture speech, as Stallworth discerns how to live out “Black Power” in his personal context, how he can, as an individual, best serve the collective good.
Stallworth is played by John David Washington. He doesn’t display the intense charisma of his famous father, Denzel, but for that, he is a touch more relatable than his father. Denzel Washington is the kind of actor you can refer to by his first name only. He’s an icon, one of the greatest of all time. You don’t believe you can be him. He embodies remarkable aspects of what humans might aspire to, in his hero roles (or cower from, in his villainous roles). John David is more down to earth, and that’s just what this story needs. BlacKkKlansman is an awakening, a reminder that we can be more like Ron Stallworth, that he is not exceptional, until, perhaps, the very, very end, depending on how you read it, when Lee elevates Stallworth to screen icon status, and reminds us that the threat of White Nationalism is very much alive today and that we need heroes to stand against it.
Make no mistake, Lee wants us to hear and see the ways White Nationalist rhetoric has woven itself into our common discourse. Stallworth has to sneak into a special event to hear Ture speak, but KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s words wash over much of the movie. He’s on the radio and the TV and the telephones. He gives speeches not in underground clubs at night with undercover officers in clandestine attendance to make sure violence doesn’t break out, but in country clubs by day with police escort.
BlacKkKlansman is one of Spike Lee’s less strident films. It is pointed, but it is also more subtle. He seems to want general audiences, you and me, to beware the ways our society is open to the racist ideas Duke and the KKK espouse. I mean, it’s all over the news, however you get it, but it’s easy to change the channel or close a browser tab. But sitting in a darkened theater, alone but with a few hundred other people, your face illuminated by the light bouncing off the screen, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look away.