Blacks & Jews Join Forces To Fight the Klan

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By A.J. Gold­mann

“I hate ni—ers, Jews, Mex­i­cans, spics, chinks, and any­one else that does not have pure white Aryan blood in their veins,” the AfricanAmer­i­can ac­tor John David Wash­ing­ton (son of Den­zel) barks into the tele­phone re­ceiver, lean­ing back in his of­fice chair dur­ing a key scene in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlans­man,” which won the Grand Prix, sec­ond place award at the 71st Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. It’s one of a few lines in the film that are taken ver­ba­tim from Ron Stall­worth’s 2014 mem­oir, “Black Klans­man: The True Story of How an African-Amer­i­can Po­lice Of­fi­cer Gained Mem­ber­ship Into David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

We’re in Colorado Springs at some point in the early 1970s and Ron Stall­worth, a rookie de­tec­tive with the lo­cal po­lice force, is per­haps get­ting car­ried away with his own racist mono­logue, em­bel­lish­ing it with the sort of lurid de­tails he feels his big­oted in­ter­locu­tor, who’s re­cruit­ing him for Klan mem­ber­ship over the phone, wants to hear.

“My sis­ter was re­cently in­volved with a ni—er and ev­ery time I think about him putting his filthy black hands on her pure white body, I get dis­gusted and sick to my stom­ach. I want to join the Klan so I can stop fu­ture abuse of the white race,” Stall­worth con­tin­ues as his po­lice col­leagues re­gard him with con­fu­sion and hor­ror.

Al­though the events de­picted in “BlacKkKlans­man” took place four decades ago, Lee’s fin­ger is un­err­ingly on the pulse of Donald Trump’s Amer­ica. In Europe, the specter of racism is a frequent fea­ture of the right-wing pop­ulism spread­ing like can­cer over so much of the con­ti­nent, and even spell­ing the death of lib­eral democ­racy in coun­tries like Hun­gary and Poland. Ap­pear­ing at a press con­fer­ence for the film, wear­ing his sig­na­ture base­ball hat, Lee re­fused to ut­ter the pres­i­dent’s name, re­fer­ring to him

only as “Agent Or­ange” (a nick­name coined by the rap­per Busta Rhymes). Lee ex­plained that film­ing on “BlacKkKlans­man” had al­ready wrapped when last Au­gust’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville re­minded or­di­nary cit­i­zens that white supremacy was alive and well in Amer­ica, and even en­dorsed by the high­est lev­els of govern­ment.

“That moth­erf—ker was given the chance to say we are about love, not hate,” Lee said in ref­er­ence to Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial com­ments about both sides bear­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the out­bursts of vi­o­lence. “And that moth­erf—ker did not de­nounce the moth­erf—king Klan, the alt-right, and those Nazi moth­erf—kers. It was a defin­ing mo­ment, and he could have said to the world, not just the United States, that we were bet­ter than that.”

“BlackKklans­man” is be­ing re­leased on Au­gust 10, which marks the one year an­niver­sary of the Char­lottesville protests, as well as the trial start date for James Fields Jr., who plowed his Dodge Challenger into a group of coun­ter­protesters, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer. Lee’s film ends with footage of that atroc­ity, an ur­gent and earnest ad­di­tion that the di­rec­tor in­cluded only af­ter Heyer’s mother gave him per­mis­sion to use the graphic ma­te­rial. For all its out­rage, how­ever, the choice seems mis­cal­cu­lated in the con­text of this sen­si­tively shot pe­riod piece, where the dead-on evo­ca­tion of the era is one of the film’s defin­ing fea­tures. (Work­ing with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Chayse Irvin, Lee shot on 35mm film for the first time in two decades).

Be­yond the Trump-in­spired out­rage, the 61-year-old di­rec­tor, and his film, have an­other mes­sage. “Any­body who thinks the Klan just hates Black peo­ple and not Jews, you need to wake the f—k up. Jews are num­ber two on the list,” Lee has been quoted as say­ing about his de­ci­sion to pepper the shoot­ing script with so many racial slurs. “The way we had those peo­ple speak is the way they speak,” came Lee’s blunt re­ply.

The screen­play, co-au­thored by Lee, in­vents a Jewish side­kick for Ron, Flip Zim­mer­man (con­vinc­ingly played by the non-Jewish ac­tor Adam Driver), which helps to drive the point home. (In the book, a nar­cotics de­tec­tive sim­ply called Chuck poses as the “White Ron Stall­worth” for face-to-face meet­ings with the Klan). The char­ac­ter of Flip is a sec­u­lar Jew who has never thought of him­self as any­thing but white un­til contact with the Klan makes him con­front his her­itage.

Aside from a clunky line or two

(“I find my­self won­der­ing about rituals…”), Flip is a well-drawn char­ac­ter and Driver, one of to­day’s most in­ter­est­ing ac­tors, has great chem­istry with Wash­ing­ton. It is also Flip, not Ron, who is at the cen­ter of one of the film’s most men­ac­ing scenes. While pay­ing his first home visit to his new white supremacist friends, Flip finds him­self alone with the lo­cal Klan chap­ter’s res­i­dent psy­cho, a loose canon named Felix (Jasper Pääkkö­nen) who waves a pis­tol at him and asks him to drop his pants and take a lie de­tec­tor test to “prove” he’s not a Jew. When Felix tells Flip his the­ory about the Holo­caust, it pro­duces one the film’s most caus­tic ex­changes. “6 mil­lion dead Jews? Never hap­pened,” Felix protests. Adam Driver looks at him stony-faced and ri­postes: “What the f—k are you talk­ing about? Dude, the Holo­caust hap­pened. And it was f— king amaz­ing!”

The film’s plea for Jews and Blacks to band to­gether to com­bat white supremacy is a mes­sage shared by the real Ron Stall­worth. “If one black man, aided by a bevy of good, de­cent, dedicated, open and lib­eral-minded Whites and Jews can suc­ceed in pre­vail­ing over a group of White racists by mak­ing them look like the ig­no­rant fools they truly were, then imag­ine what a na­tion of like-minded in­di­vid­u­als could ac­com­plish,” he writes in a pref­ace to the book.

The re­lease of the film seems well timed, not only in light of Char­lottesville, but also af­ter films like “Get Out” and “Black Pan­ther” have dis­proved the con­ven­tional wis­dom that “black films” are niche-mar­ket fare in­ca­pable of mak­ing a killing at the box of­fice.

If this seems like good news all around for the film, Lee still is strik­ing a de­fi­ant tone. “I don’t care what the crit­ics say, or any­body else,” Lee said. “We are on the right side of his­tory with this film.”

FIGHT THE POWER: John David Wash­ing­ton and Laura Har­rier star in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlans­man,” set in the early 1970s.

GETTY IMAGES

JEWISH SIDE­KICK: Adam Driver, pic­tured with di­rec­tor Spike Lee (left), plays the fic­tional char­ac­ter of Flip Zim­mer­man.’

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