Spike Lee never really went away, he’s released films at a reliable clip through his multi decade career. Starting perhaps in the tail end of the Clinton administration, he felt adrift. Lee never strayed far from his roots in his features, but his social commentary was often relegated to subtext as in his big-budget thriller Inside Man.
And while Inside Man is often regarded as Lee as a hired-gun the themes there are revived more explicitly in BlacKkKlansman. In both films there’s an attempt to link the African American and Jewish cultures as allies in the same struggle against the worst white supremacist and nativist elements of American society.
In Klansman Ron Stallworth is the first African American police officer in Colorado Springs. The department initially sees worth in having him spy on the local black intellectual scenes, at the time host to nascent black power speakers and resilient civil rights survivors. Stallworth chafes against this. Ironically sitting in on these talks and speeches winds up pulling him closer to the movement. Stallworth seeks a way to bridge his police work with duties to his race. So on a whim, one day he phones the local Ku Klux Klan office and tries for membership using his own name.
Stallworth is immediately successful which sets up a conundrum. The Klansmen want to meet the prospective new member. Rather than back off fellow officer Flip (Adam Driver) is recruited to act as Stallworth in face-to-face interactions.
I can imagine BlacKkKlansman made in the George W. Bush or early Obama presidencies, when Stallworth and Flip’s exploits would have been treated as pure hagiography. It would have fit in with the dozens of other Oscar-bait features that seemed to signify America was looking at racism as a thing of the past. In the hands of a “Ron Howard” type and a dutiful critic corp writing reviews that imply the film’s importance.
In Donald Trump’s America there’s no need to pull punches. In the place of hero worship Lee never lets an opportunity pass to question his protagonists as deeply as the murderous Klansmen. Everyone of Stallworth and Flip’s successes are immediately undercut. The successful sting operation into the Klan leads to the police department destroying all the captured intelligence and forbidding future investigations.
Even more that the actions of the investigation, Lee continually confronts the Stallworth character. He’s the latest in a long line of Hollywood blacks who went in civil service to serve and protect. For his fairness and resolve he’s marginalized in his department, and distrusted in his community. Where as nearly all previous manifestations of this character were reassured by their narratives that cast them in traditional hero-arcs, Lee is not so welcoming. Stallworth comes across as nobly-intentioned but naive. He drafts himself in an impossible war, but rather than find honor or cast him as a David v the Klan’s Goliath Lee finds little worthy of lionization.
Lee sets up the climax of the film with familiar enough action film tropes: a bomb, the unaware target, the “plan B”, and Stallworth rushing into the frame to set everything right. In a neat interpolation of Get Out’s climax though, Stallworth’s actions subduing the bomber mark him as a mugger. When his fellow policemen arrive they violently attack him. Stallworth then is worse than just an observer, he’s impotent to change the course of events. He’s a victim, not a hero.
Donald Trump looms over this picture. Throughout the running time there’s sprinkled the hallmarks of Trump’s ascent to the presidency. When the Klansmen seek to brand themselves, “America First” comes up as an obvious description. Multiple people look at David Duke as the shape of white racism to come, Stallworth can’t imagine someone like Duke in elective office, but he’s one of the few having trouble making the leap.