I finally managed to see BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s latest film about the real police detective who, in the 70s, infiltrated the KKK. It’s basically as good as all the positive reviews and plaudits make it sound, with fun, dynamic central performances by John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a black cop who makes phone contact with the KKK (and eventually develops a relationship with national leader David Duke), and Adam Driver as Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, the white cop who plays him in person. It’s also a very funny film, which gets a lot of mileage out of mocking the so-called master race who can’t even tell when they’re talking to a black man.
But I also think that the premise—how a black cop infiltrated the KKK!—and the comedic tone obscure the fact that this is in no way a triumphant movie. After a while watching Ron, Flip, and their colleagues crack themselves up over how they’re fooling Duke and his lieutenants, you have to wonder whether their mission amounts to anything more than a punking. Not that punking David Duke isn’t doing God’s work, but it’s certainly not the heroic mission the characters sometimes seem to think they’re on. And while the film climaxes with Ron and Flip stopping a bombing against black student leaders, it’s strongly implied that an unintentional effect of that achievement is to do Duke and his advisors a favor by cleaning up their house, while leaving the larger organization standing.
The most important scene in the film comes when Ron’s sergeant explains that Duke’s objective is to create a new, more socially acceptable KKK, one that obscures its bigotry under supposedly legitimate policy disputes over things like immigration or affirmative action. Ron’s response—”America isn’t going to elect someone like David Duke”—is a complete gut-punch, but Lee leaves nothing to chance when he ends the film with footage from last year’s murderous neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, and of Trump calling the protesters “very fine people”. The point seems obvious—this was a satisfying but ultimately insignificant victory in a war that was already changing beyond any of the characters’ ability to recognize it. BlacKkKlansman may be funny, but it’s David Duke and his ilk who are currently having the last laugh.
It’s for this reason that I don’t see the film as being pro-police in the same way that some of its critics—including, most prominently, Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley—have done. Riley’s criticism is worth reading in full, particularly for the way it gets into the film’s many inaccuracies, which are worth highlighting before we turn the real Ron Stallworth into a hero. But if you take BlacKkKlansman as a narrative in its own right (which, to be clear, you don’t have to do) I don’t see it as being very complimentary to the police. The film makes it clear that it’s only because of Ron’s influence that the KKK even become a target of investigation, and it takes a while for Ron’s white colleagues to appreciate the scope of the social ill they’re dealing with. At the end of the investigation, Ron and Flip are ordered by their superiors to destroy their investigative materials, implying that protecting the names of community pillars who are also KKK members is more important than crippling the organization once and for all.
There is one obvious misstep, in a scene where Ron, Flip, and their white superiors work together to entrap a racist cop (who has been harassing Ron and pulling over black citizens to intimidate and molest). It’s an unearned, unbelievable moment of triumph in a film that otherwise feels pretty realistic—and not very hopeful—in its tone.
But, you know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m meant to take a much more simplistic, triumphant, pro-police message from BlacKkKlansman than I did. Those of you who have seen it: what do you think?