BlacKkKlansman

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 5, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film, based on Stallworth’s book, tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on rogerebert.com, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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Tonight on PBS: Accidental Courtesy — A Black Musician Befriends KKKers

Posted on February 13, 2017 at 9:14 am

Musician Daryl Davis is a black man who has spent years meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. In some cases, the Klan members have decided to leave after getting to know him. One even asked Davis to be godfather to his son. When his new friends leave, Davis asks if he can have their robes and other artifacts. A new documentary, “Accidental Courtesy,” follows Davis across the country as he meets with current and former Klan members, as well as young black activists who question his unusual form of racial reconciliation. It airs tonight on PBS.

I heard Davis speak a few years ago at our son’s school, and was glad to get a chance to talk to him about his work. He explained that as the son of diplomats, he grew up in a world that was more racially and culturally mixed than America. “Whenever I was overseas as a child in the early 1950s, my class group contained kids from every embassy from all over the world. So, literally I was sitting in class with Japanese kids, French, German, Italian you name it. If they had embassy there, their kids and I were in the same school and that’s how I grew up from age three on except for when I would home come here to my home country. When I was overseas I was living 12 to 15 years ahead of my time because of that scenario in the classroom with all the different colors and religions and ethnicities, etc. Today you walk into a classroom here in the States you see that, that same scenario but you did not see it in the 1950s. So I was prepared for that, it was no shock to me. I’ve never experienced any kind of xenophobia because I was so exposed to different people from day one, whereas my peers back here, they had to catch up. As a kid you think that every little kid does the same thing you do because everybody in your class group does the same thing, so therefore you must have the same experience. What I did not realize that my experience was something that very few kids had in America. I would not realize that until I was really back home here in the States in class, say in History class or Geography class and we would be studying the Mona Lisa, or the Berlin wall or the Eiffel Tower. I remember all those things, I’ve seen and touched all those things but my peers back home here the closest they would ever get to these things would be the portrayal that they see in the textbooks. As a kid I thought all kids must do that so I didn’t notice anything different at the time but when I was a teenager, I began to appreciate more of what my parents had done for me and where they had taken me and what they have exposed me to because in retrospect I could see that my American peers other than the ones at the embassy did not have that experience. I had something that was invaluable.”

He says there is no one reason someone joins the Ku Klux Klan. “They come from all walks of life and their reasons are different. They come from different educational backgrounds. You have the third-grade dropout who pumps gas all his life at the gas station, you’ve got people who are private school educated, you even have people who are Presidents of United States. President Warren Harding was sworn into the Ku Klux Klan, Harry Truman had joined the Klan before he became President, he didn’t like it, he got out of it and then went on to be President, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a Klansman before he went on to the Supreme Court. Senator Robert Byrd who just died couple years ago was a Klansman back in the 1940s. So you have people from all walks of life. There are those who say, ‘You know my granddaddy was in the Klan and my daddy was in the Klan, John is in the Klan and my friends want to be in the Klan, it’s a family tradition.’ Other times it’s an environmental thing where you live in certain areas and you have to belong or you suffer consequences. So if you live in some rural area that is infested with that kind of thing your neighbor is in the Klan, the mechanic who works on your car is in the Klan, the guys around you are in the Klan. If you’re going to be doing business with those people you need to get a passport you need to get a bank loan or whatever, you best conform to the environment otherwise you will be an outsider. So it could be a family tradition, it could be environmental or maybe it could be so socioeconomic.”

The Klan member see themselves as a group along the lines of the NAACP or ADL, Davis told me. They say, “Nobody stands up for the white man except the Ku Klux Klan” and that is particularly compelling in economically depressed areas. “They say: ‘We will get you hooked up for a job. Come and join the Klan and we will get your job back for you.’ So people who were never racist to begin with began thinking, ‘You know they do have a point because these guys are going to come in and they are going to work at less than half the pay I was working, I get laid off and I can’t even feed my family or clothe my family, at least I could get my job. So yes, give me an application, I’ll sign up.’ And that’s pretty much the campaign that our current President ran up on which is why he was so supported by that type of person.”

Davis says despite all of that there is a lot of progress, and America is less racist than it as in the 1960s, though it continues to be a persistent and intractable problem. He continues to reach out, listening to Klan members. He provides them with history and data, but most important, though, is his presence, demonstrating his humanity, understanding, and lack of hostility or judgment.

He sees a clear connection between Klan terminology like “white supremacist” and more contemporary terms like “white separatist,” “white nationalist,” and “alt-right.” He hopes that people who see the documentary will “learn that this country, our society whether it’s our country at large or our society, the immediate environment in which we live, our neighborhood, our community, our town, whatever it is it is going to become one of two things, it’s either going to become what we sit back and let it become or it’s going to become what we make it when we get up off our butt and start shaping it. And the movie shows that people can talk, they may not always agree but at least they can talk and what’s really important is that people learn to talk with, the operative word, with each other.”

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