Rob Edelman: BlacKKKlansman

Aug 20, 2018

At a time in which Donald Trump is the United States President and real-world issues involving African-Americans are endlessly grabbing headlines, it is not surprising that a range of films are dealing head-on with black-Americans and racism. But one in particular has been winning masses of headlines. Its title is eye-catching, to be sure. That would be BLACKKKLANSMAN and, even though it is set in the 1970’s, Donald Trump and 2018 are front-and-center in its story line.

There is so much to be said about BLACKKKLANSMAN, on so many levels. For openers, it links several generations of African-American talent. Its co-writer and director is Spike Lee, who needs no introduction. One of its producers is Jordan Peele, the writer-director of last year’s GET OUT. One of its cast members is none other than Harry Belafonte.

Now in case you haven’t heard: BLACKKKLANSMAN is a fact-based tale. Its central character is a young African-American Colorado Springs police officer. He is played by John David Washington, the son of Denzel. At the core of the story is the manner in which the cop gains access to a local Ku Klux Klan chapter and, along the way, he even connects with none other than David Duke! Now would the presence of David Duke be so prominent had Donald Trump not so infamously claimed to be unfamiliar with this otherwise well-known white supremacist, white nationalist, and anti-Semite?

So much of the content of BLACKKKLANSMAN is apparent. At one point, in so many words, the various KKK members yearn to make America great again. The irony here is obvious. Also, cinematically-speaking, the so-called glory of the Klan is referenced in D.W. Griffith’s controversial THE BIRTH OF A NATION, produced over a century ago. Clips from this film appear in BLACKKKLANSMAN, which is supposed to be a peek at American history, but it also is a peek into America in 2018. In other words, BLACKKKLANSMAN is no simple history lesson. It directly relates to our time and, for me, it is a sad and gloomy reflection of our time.

Now as an observation of contemporary race relations and an example of cinematically vigorous storytelling, BLACKKKLANSMAN does not compare with Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, which is almost three decades old, or even last year’s GET OUT. But BLACKKKLANSMAN is Lee’s best film in quite a while. Plus, it does not just focus solely on African-American issues. Throughout its script, it emphasizes the abhorrence of anti-Semitism-- and this is a major leap for Spike Lee. You may recall Lee’s MO’ BETTER BLUES, from 1990, which features a pair of one-dimensionally racist Jewish entrepreneurs named Moe and Josh Flatbush. Well, it’s about time that Spike Lee matured regarding the manner in which he depicts victimized Americans who are not just African-Americans. (Here is a trivia note. The actor who plays Josh Flatbush is Nicholas Turturro. In BLACKKKLANSMAN, he returns in a small but pivotal role.)

With all this in mind, it is not surprising that BLACKKKLANSMAN was released theatrically during the weekend of August 10: the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville. Among its participants were, of course, members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and KKK members-- and it should not be forgotten that Donald Trump referred to the marchers and those who opposed them as “very fine people-- on both sides.” It is for this reason alone that a film like BLACKKKLANSMAN yearns to be seen and discussed.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.