The Witness

BlacKkKlansman: A Story of Then and Now

CJ Quartlbaum

“BlacKkKlansman” is more than a movie, it is history. The film tells a story as old as time: racism, resistance, and those in the middle of it all. You will spend two hours in the theater experiencing joy, pain, love, hate, inspiration, hope, hopelessness, and laughter.

“BlacKkKlansman” centers around Ron Stallworth. He is the first black Colorado Springs police officer who also infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He did this by simply calling the local KKK office and pretending to be white. He used one of his white colleagues, Officer Flip Zimmerman, to pretend to be him in person. They ended up thwarting the KKK’s plot to bomb the home of the president of the local college’s Black Student Union. They also gained valuable intel on the KKK’s operations.

This film strikingly highlights the story beneath the story. If you change a few elements, you will find these events could easily take place today. In a recent interview with Bill Simmons, John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, said the biggest thing he learned is “how generational hate is.” Generational hate is the true theme of this story.

Not Too Long Ago

The events of this film take place just about 40 years ago. This is not distant history at all. Spike Lee, the film’s director, artfully draws a bridge between yesterday and today and shows us the bridge really isn’t that long.

One of the most powerful scenes is the speech of Kwame Ture. He says, “What are the definitions of beauty? A narrow nose? Thin lips? White skin? Our lips are thick, our noses broad, our hair is nappy, our skin is black! We are beautiful!” In a world that constantly tries to emulate our styles and look while simultaneously demeaning us, this is a word for today.

Ture goes on to say: “The vast majority of negroes around this country live in captive communities and they just endure their oppressive communities because they are black and powerless…We are being shot down in the streets like dogs by racist cops.” Today, it’s nearly impossible to turn on the television without seeing a story of another unarmed black person being murdered by the cops. His words eerily fit into the present as though nothing has changed.

The best part of his speech is when he says, “We need an undying love for black people, wherever we may be.” Yes and amen.

Code-Switching and The Dawn of Duke

When Stallworth was trying to convince his boss, Chief Bridges, that he could pull off this investigation, he was questioned. Not for his competence but because it would be easy to hear the difference between his voice and a white man’s voice. The implication here was that black people speak one way and white people speak another. Ron’s response was one nearly every black person understands: “Some speak the Queen’s English, some speak jive, I speak both.”

The art of code-switching is almost embedded in us from birth. If we want to survive and have a chance at some measure of success, we have to learn to operate in two worlds: ours and the majority culture’s.

When officer Zimmerman (“white” Ron) meets Walter, the local head of the KKK organization, the racist rhetoric stands out immediately. Walter claims blacks are taking over, taking jobs, and are all over the television. All of the new politically-correct speech (Afro-Americans instead of negros) also drives him up the wall. Notice how the caricatures of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima were allowable though. We continue to see the demonization of people of color while the “acceptable” representatives of their race/ethnicity are being pushed to this day.

The film’s dynamics and story lead us to its greatest piece of foreshadowing: David Duke. In 1979, the current patron saint of the Alt-Right was the Grand Wizard of the KKK. In a pivotal scene, Sergeant Trapp explains to Ron the new stylings of the KKK under Duke. They’ve shifted away from violence. Duke changed his title to National Director. He is also always seen in a 3-piece-suit and is ultimately running for public office. Sergeant Trapp informs Ron this is the new way to sell hate. Duke sells his racist issues as policies: anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare, law and order etc. He does this with one simple endgame: to establish someone in office who embodies his sentiments. This leads to some of the most chilling lines in the film:

Ron: “America would never elect somebody like David Duke.”
Trapp: “Coming from a black man, that’s pretty naive. Why don’t you wake up?”

Fast forward 40 years and here we are. Later in the movie, Duke says to Ron, “I don’t hate negroes, neither does the organization. They just need to be with their own.” The same words are often spoken today at Unite the Right rallies.

So It Ends?

The most pertinent scene in this film comes near the end with white Ron’s induction ceremony into the KKK. This scene is juxtaposed with the Black Student Union hosting the activist Jerome Turner.

The scene flips back and forth between two very different worlds. One minute you are hearing prayers for the true white man and the next, you’re hearing the tale of Jesse Washington’s torture and lynching. Pictures of that dreadful day were sold as postcards and Spike Lee shows us a few of these images as the new members of the KKK are being baptized. It ends with the audience being bounced back and forth between ‘White Power’ and ‘Black Power’ chants.

The film ends with footage from last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. We witness white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. ram his car into activist Heather Heyer and several others. We then hear the words of Donald Trump, “There were very fine people on both sides.” This moment serves as a dreadful reminder of how far we have not come.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a story of yesterday and today and is about the present just as it is the past. Spike Lee does a masterful job of staying true to Ron Stallworth’s story while simultaneously showing us we are still living in racism and its ramifications today.

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