Blacks & Jews Join Forces To Fight the Klan
“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.
JEWISH SIDEKICK: Adam Driver, pictured with director Spike Lee (left), plays the fictional character of Flip Zimmerman.’