BlacKkKlansman: A Much Too American Story

By Bobbie Kirkhart

It is an inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tion: a black cop infil­trates the Ku Klux Klan, the most sto­ried white suprema­cist group in the Unit­ed States. How could this new under­cov­er offi­cer resist the temp­ta­tion? How could he get past the one main obsta­cle: his blackness?

It is an inter­est­ing plot: a white cop play­ing a black cop, two peo­ple pos­ing as one voice and one per­son­al­i­ty, but one black and one white. How could a film­mak­er resist the temp­ta­tion? How could he get past the one main obsta­cle: that the Klan was a tired old group in the ear­ly 1970s and an ane­mic antag­o­nist. The book, Black Klans­man: A Mem­oir by Ron Stall­worth, is inter­est­ing – but is the movie?

For­tu­nate­ly for us, some folks who know how to make a movie got the rights to Stallworth’s book and per­mis­sion to take lib­er­ties. Using a few inci­dents from Stallworth’s mem­oir and adding movie-type action sus­pense, they put togeth­er a script that just had to find Spike Lee. This was a strong foun­da­tion of a team that brought us a mag­nif­i­cent film, one that might not be an accu­rate depic­tion of the Klan in the ear­ly 1970s, but one that is an insight­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Amer­i­cans and our worst frailties.

The script includes plen­ty of action and sus­pense, riv­et­ing the audi­ence to the edge of the seat. In true Spike Lee fash­ion, much of this exhil­a­ra­tion is cre­at­ed by superb cin­e­matog­ra­phy and edit­ing, demon­strat­ing the con­fu­sion of the sit­u­a­tion and the clar­i­ty of the cause. While the plot takes lib­er­ties with the facts, the film is enriched with accu­rate his­tor­i­cal asides about the bloody past of the Klan. Most of this is nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Bela­fonte, 91-year-old singer and civ­il rights activist, por­tray­ing a man who had wit­nessed the 1916 pub­lic lynch­ing of teenage Jesse Wash­ing­ton. That sto­ry has lived a cen­tu­ry in our nation­al shame.

An able cast is head­ed by John David Wash­ing­ton (yes, he’s Denzel’s son) in the title role and Adam Dri­ver as Flip Zim­mer­man, Stallworth’s alter ego. The pri­ma­ry antag­o­nist, the unin­tel­li­gent but clever Felix Kendrick­son, is made believ­able by Jasper Pääkkö­nen. Ash­lie Atkin­son does a cred­i­ble job as his wife Con­nie, the woman seek­ing rel­e­vance in a man’s world.  Per­haps it’s the per­for­mance, or per­haps the make-up artist, but Topher Grace is con­vinc­ing as David Duke.

A long epi­logue, con­tain­ing actu­al news footage of recent hate crimes, under­scores the rel­e­vance of this well-told sto­ry. If I have any­thing to crit­i­cize about the film, it would be the film’s trail­er which doesn’t do the movie justice.

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P.S.  In case you’re inter­est­ed in the Klan’s inner work­ings at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry, go to the two-part inter­view with Tom Rice, “The Klan, Film, and the Fear of the Out­sider” at http://blog.asjournal.org/white-robes-silver-screens-interview-tom-rice/

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.