I used to be able to watch films such as BlacKkKlansman with a (perhaps naïve) level of disconnect.
Much like films about war or abuse against women, they were sad, scary and flat-out hideous – but they were also a thing of the past (or at least on the way to becoming such). Things had, I thought, improved.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that things can change. Hate crimes can rise. Leaders can encourage violence and division. Groups of people – be it by race, religion or sexual orientation – can be blamed for the acts of a few.
Intolerance, ignorance or fear. Call it what you will. It never really goes away.
And in BlacKkKlansman – a film based on the true story of a Black cop in the US who managed to infiltrate the KKK – racism, anti-Semitism and police brutality come crashing through your cinema screens. And, as if the message wasn’t clear enough in the film itself, director Spike Lee really hits the message home with recent footage from Charlottesville.
You watch as white supremacists, torches in hand, chant ‘Jews will not replace us’ and a car ploughs into crowds of anti-protestors and kills a woman.
With a film like this, it’s hard to really talk about the script, the direction, the plot points or even the cast. Fortunately, all of these elements come across brilliantly which means there is nothing to distract from the viewing experience – but that’s not exactly what you came for.
Unlike a person of colour, I grew up with my ‘otherness’ hidden in plain sight. My dad is not Jewish so I don’t have a typically Jewish surname. I was raised in a Progressive synagogue, so I don’t dress the way a stricter Jewish person might. I never went to a Jewish school or properly observed Shabbat. And I’ve lost count of the number of times people have discovered my faith and exclaimed ‘You don’t look Jewish!’.
Though I grew up in a diverse part of North London with friends and school mates who looked different and had different cultural and religious backgrounds, a small part of me kept my religion to myself. I never lied about it but I also never volunteered the information unprompted – just in case. In the last few years, however, this has changed.
I might not be as observant with my religion as others but it is there nonetheless. It’s part of me. It’s my heritage, my history and my family – and it has informed who I have grown up to be.
I knew, when I went in to see BlacKkKlansman, that this was not going to be an easy watch. I prepared myself for it being emotional and upsetting. And yet I still was not prepared for the utterly visceral reaction I had watching it.
In the film, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) manages to infiltrate the KKK by having phone calls with the local chapter, pretending to be a white guy. He then sends in a white colleague to keep up the façade of this ‘character’, a colleague who also happens to be Jewish. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is chillingly good at his job as an undercover cop and manages to keep his cool when other KKK members demand he prove that he is not, in fact, a Jew.
One scene, in which one of them proclaims that the Jews lied and the Holocaust never happened, reached a whole new level of upsetting. Flip responds not by agreeing with him but by asking why he would deny such a beautiful event in our history. It’s hard to watch and even harder to repeat. But this film does not shy away from the difficulties.
For me, one of the most simplistic and moving moments in the film comes when Ron confronts Flip, confused as to why this whole situation isn’t getting him more rattled. After all, he’s Jewish. So why is he not more annoyed? It’s not like the KKK reserve their hate only for people of colour (though it would certainly seem they’re top of the list). Flip explains that this is just a job to him, not a crusade like it is for Ron. However, as we delve deeper, we learn that he wasn’t actually raised to be religious. He goes on to confess that that thing he barely thought about when he was younger is now all he can think about.
There are some moments in the film of beautiful victory and poetic justice, moments that should make you want to punch the air with glee. But these moments are hard to enjoy. They’re just not that satisfying because, whatever victories they may achieve in the film, you know it won’t last. You know it was just a drop in the ocean. An impressive one, sure, but we’re a long way off being able to celebrate just yet.
And in that lies Spike Lee’s greatest strength. He acknowledges the victory but then makes a direct link between then and now. It’s a little heavy-handed at times but Lee is not one for subtlety. He’s got something to say and is not afraid to say it.
So whatever your religion, race or sexual orientation, make sure you see BlacKkKlansman. Take some time to digest it and really think about both what it’s saying and what is happening in the world today. It’s time to start paying attention.