I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, mostly due to a combination of parenting fatigue/childcare costs/fear that the movie won’t be worth the effort. But when my cousin Dan Whitener announced that his original song “We Are Gonna Be Okay,” co-written with his wife Eileen Kern, was featured in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, I knew I had to get myself to the nearest theater.
And OH MAN. It was worth the effort. Not just for the sheer thrill of hearing Dan’s song playing softly in the background of a KKK-run bar (yikes), but also because this is a really, really good film, one that illustrates perfectly why historical fiction matters.
As an opening title notes, BlacKkKlansman is “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” It tells the story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who ran an undercover sting on the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Based on Stallworth’s memoir, the script takes some liberties with the facts to create a more engaging, cohesive narrative, but the craziest, I-can’t-believe-this-is-real plot points are all too true. Newly assigned to the intelligence department of the force, Stallworth (played by John David Washington) answers a newspaper ad for the KKK and poses as a white supremacist hoping to join the group. When it comes time to actually meet the other Klansmen (who prefer the sanitized term “the organization” to “KKK”), Stallworth has to enlist a white police officer to stand in for him. His colleague, shielded in the memoir, is fictionalized as Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a non-practicing Jewish officer who’s forced to contend with the Klan’s antisemitism as he goes deeper into the operation. Things quickly escalate: Stallworth develops relationships over the phone, charming both the local organizer and David Duke himself (played to banal perfection by Topher Grace), while Zimmerman attends increasingly contentious meetings. And when Duke decides to attend Stallworth’s initiation ceremony in person, the whole operation is put at risk.
Sounds insane, right? But just as Spike Lee warned us, virtually everything in that plot summary above is based directly on Ron Stallworth’s experiences. Yes, the narrative also adds a subplot following Stallworth’s growing relationship with Patrice, a (fictional) student activist whose work with the local Black Student Union makes her the KKK’s latest target, and there’s a planned bombing that brings together the assorted story threads in an explosive climax. These two storylines create a more cohesive, audience-friendly narrative, making BlacKkKlansman more historical fiction than straight documentary. But that’s what gives the film its power.
This format allows Lee to draw parallels, both subtle and overt, to today’s racial injustices. At Stallworth’s initiation ceremony, Duke and the other KKK members proudly proclaim “America first!” in a direct echo of Trump’s political agenda. Landers, a longtime white member of the Colorado Springs police force, is widely known to have shot and killed a black teenager, but he manages to keep his job thanks to the silent support of his colleagues. During the simultaneous KKK initiation and Black Student Union counter-protest, Lee intercuts the Klan’s shouts of “White Power!” with the BSU’s fierce proclamations of “Black Power!” As far as anyone knows, the BSU didn’t really host a coordinated counter-protest during the Colorado Springs KKK initiation, but it’s this kind of creative freedom behind Lee’s direction that drives home the film’s message. History is heightened for maximum effect.
There’s a scene where Stallworth sits at his desk in the police department, chatting casually with David Duke over the phone. Duke tells him he can discern between a white man and a black man based solely on pronunciation, using the word are as an example. Too wild to be true? It’s taken directly from a real conversation Stallworth had with the Grand Wizard. Spike Lee hits just the right note in these moments, straddling the line between hilarious absurdity and shocking realism. You’re laughing right along with Stallworth and his colleagues, sitting on the other side of the phone, but you’re also realizing that this kind of belief is the bread and butter of racists like Duke.
Some critics have argued that the film’s ending, which jumps jarringly to 2017 footage of the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s tacit endorsement of neo-Nazis, is too heavy-handed, but I think it’s vital. Taken alone, Stallworth’s story could stand as a historical set piece, a stranger-than-fiction story that keeps the uncomfortable conversations about race firmly in the past. But set within the context of the Civil War (thanks to a Confederate-flag laced clip of Gone with the Wind) and modern neo-Nazi violence, the film becomes a searing indictment of America’s ongoing inability to silence white supremacy. And with the success of Stallworth’s ruse–a black man infiltrating one of the most racist organizations in American history–it’s impossible to ignore the blazing truth that racism, no matter how absurd and nonsensical, is still dangerously powerful.
This is why historical fiction matters.