Another review is coming, fret not. In the meantime, I saw a more contemporary movie yesterday – and was revisited by a very early film from the list.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story (or, as the opening titles say, “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”); it’s about Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. But he didn’t just do that – he actually infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (with the assistance of a fellow white police officer – Adam Driver plays him in the film – who played “Ron Stallworth” when he had to make a personal appearance). The whole thing was so successful that “Ron Stallworth” was having regular phone conversations with David Duke, and was actually nominated to lead the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK.
It is a remarkable story; Lee did tweak the actual events a little, but waaaay less than you’d think. The only part of the plot that was invented whole cloth, so far as I can tell, was a love-interest subplot; any other change was either an amplification (a couple of things the KKK do in the film are things they only talked about doing in reality) or just a dramaturgical cosmetic change (movie Stallworth makes his initial contact with the KKK via phone, real Stallworth wrote to a P.O. box). And there are few changes from the reality.
I’d agree with those who see it as kind of a return to form for Lee; it’s similar in feel to his films from the 90s like Do The Right Thing or School Daze, with that provocative mix of comedic moments and serious, intense social commentary. But you seriously can’t expect anything but that from a story like this; the things the Klansmen say in the film are as abhorrent as you’d think – Topher Grace makes an especially creepy David Duke – and the whole idea of Stallworth actually infiltrating the KKK sounds like a Chapelle Show sketch. One criticism I’ve heard from others is that Lee is a little heavy-handed tying events of the film to today; I can see why others would feel that way, but frankly, I suspect the times call for it.
One moment was uniquely uncomfortable, though. In the film, “Ron Stallworth” is officially initiated into the Klan, and following the formal ceremony, the friends and family join the initiates to watch a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. Spike shows a few clips from the film in the sequence, complete with the raucous audience reaction, with Driver’s character trying to play along, and Washington’s character – clandestinely watching through a window to make sure Driver is okay – is of course disgusted.
It’s only been about a year since I saw Birth Of A Nation myself. And – honestly, the idea of anyone today seeing that film and thinking it was anything other than exaggerated propaganda is mind-blowing. We like to think that we’re more savvy today, that we wouldn’t fall for such obvious and blatantly manipulative filmmaking – but here is an audience that apparently not only was eating it up, they were loving every minute of it.
And the hell of it is – there are some who are no doubt going to say exactly the same thing about this film. They’re dead wrong, but they’ll be saying it anyway; much to all of our shame.