‘BlackKklansman’ Nails the Comedic Terror of America’s White Supremacist Movement
Spike Lee’s new joint is a mess, but when it hits it stings
When white supremacist leader Jason Kessler rose from the metro station at Unite the Right 2 in Washington, D.C., I had a hard time processing how tiny he was. For all his hateful rhetoric and bluster, Kessler is a small man.
As his assorted crew of masked miscreants walked through the streets—media accounts of two dozen seem overblown, I counted just six—it felt as if the whole city leaned out their windows to shame them. Kessler, his puffed out chest, marched forward with an American flag draped over his body.
He was ridiculous, an image cemented forever on the internet when his dad interrupted one of his live streams to tell him to get out of his room. Just a year ago, Kessler and his group of wannabe Nazis seemed dangerous. People got hurt in Charlottesville, Virginia and Heather Heyer lost her life.
Extremist movements have always been this way—easy targets for ridicule that are deadly at the same time. They are as prone to violence as they are to parody.
BlackKklansman, a new movie from director Spike Lee, understands that dichotomy. Lee’s movie tells the ostensibly true story of Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth in 1972. Stallworth begins his career as a detective infiltrating black radical groups for the cops then, on a whim, answers a personal ad in the paper from the Ku Klux Klan.
The Organization, as it calls itself, is looking for new members and they love the sound of Stallworth’s voice.
After a quick conversation, the rookie detective has an in with a notorious hate group. The problem is, of course, that Stallworth is black. So the police enlist Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman to play Stallworth in person while the real Stallworth seduces the Klan over the phone, eventually developing a bromance with then Grand Wizard David Duke.
The movie is uneven and though it claims to be a true story, it plays fast and loose with the truth of the events. Much of what gives the film its impact—Zimmerman’s Jewish heritage and a subplot about a racist police officer—is a fabrication.
But what BlackKklansman nails is the intersection of comedy and tragedy inherent in all extremist movements. When Hitler and Mussolini came to power, many mocked the little men, their ridiculous accents and hyperbolic rhetoric. They and their movements were sources of ridicule until, suddenly, they weren’t.
It’s the same in America with legacy white supremacist movements such as the KKK and the modern alt-right. That there are grown men who wander the woods in white sheets getting drunk, lighting crosses on fire and babbling about genetics they don’t understand is hysterical.
The alt-right, with its elaborate costumes, bizarre internet-borne mythology, and tendency to self-own is similarly hilarious. Even a group as terrifying as the Islamic State is prone to embarrassing moments. Remember Abu Hajaar.
Many of the Klansman in BlackKklansman are idiots. Fat and slovenly Ivanhoe breathes through his mouth and constantly gives up the groups plans. Duke just seems to want someone to like him. Kennebrew Beauregard—played by Alec Baldwin—can’t finish the easy lines of the propaganda video he’s making without dropping a line and screaming at his assistants.
And yet, despite the easy laughs, these people are deadly. Duke attempted, and someone would argue succeeded, at mainstreaming Southern-fried white-supremacist sentiments. He made extreme racism palatable to the rest of America. The rest of the idiot Klansman steal C4 and put together a bombing plot that would have resulted in the horrifying deaths of Colorado Springs’ black activist community.
Extremists are funny, and we should laugh at them, but they’re also deadly. We shouldn’t forget that.