There is a memorable climax at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which juxtaposes scenes of a baptism with scenes of brutal murder at the hands of mafia hit men. While one community rejoices, another suffers. I have no doubt that Spike Lee was aware of cinematic allusions and Coppola’s masterpiece, and that they informed his directorial decisions in BlacKkKlansman, a comedy-drama about race relations in America in the 1970s.
The film opens with images from Gone with the Wind revealing a host of bodies of Confederate soldiers, some of whom are wounded and some of whom are dead. It then switches to a video of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a racist launching a tirade against African Americans, claiming they, along with Jews with money, are threatening Protestant Americans.
Against this backdrop, BlacKkKlansman unfolds. It is 1972 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Ron Stallworth, who is black, applies for a job as a policeman/detective. After his interview, he is given a position on the force, becoming the city’s first black law enforcement officer.
He initially is given an office job filing reports, but Ron yearns to be out in the field. Chief Bridges, after some doubt, decides to reassign Ron to undercover work.
His first assignment is attending a Black Panther gathering at which Stokely Carmichael, a black power advocate, will be speaking. The Chief wants to know if Carmichael is planning to radicalize the blacks in Colorado Springs. Ron attends the meeting with a wire, accompanied by Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop, who will monitor Ron’s conversations from a nearby police car.
Chief Bridges admires Ron’s work ethic and performance, so when Ron asks for permission to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, he gives it to him. But there is one problem. When Ron contacted the Klan recruitment telephone number, he used his real name. Now he needs a white policeman to pose as Ron when the Klan wants to meet this new recruit in person. Enter Flip Zimmerman, who is willing to present himself as white supremacist Ron Stallworth for the face-to-face meetings with the Klan’s local administration. This charade is comical but serious at the same time, since Flip, both an undercover policeman and a Jew, can easily be in harm’s way.
Throughout all his undercover work, Ron is conflicted. He identifies with blacks and their desire for more power. He also takes pride in their heritage, but he is not in favor of using violence to further the cause. Contrasting with his balanced view of life is the depiction of the members of the Klan, who see all blacks and Jews as subversive and deserving of death.
His inner conflict is depicted in a series of juxtaposed scenes contrasting a meeting of blacks with a meeting of whites. At the black assembly, a community elder recounts a terrible injustice done to a mentally handicapped black man convicted of rape and murder within minutes by a jury of white men. Across town is a celebratory gathering of white Klansmen who are initiating a new member. There, David Duke, a known racist, spreads a message of hate and white supremacy.
BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle movie. Spike Lee has an aggressive directing style. He places identity politics directly in front of the audience, depicting the dangerous extremism of which many people are capable.
There are no easy answers to the questions he raises about race relations in America. Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, the black ideologue, paraphrases the words of the Sages in Ethics of the Fathers by posing the following questions in his speech: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who?”