We will never know for sure what sparked a noticeable increase in movies about the American black experience in recent years, but it might have had something to do with the fact that, in 2008, this country elected its first black president. Since then, some of the most powerful movies about race relations and black history have come out, most notably:
The Help (2011)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years A Slave (2013)
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Dear White People (2017)
Black filmmakers have felt more empowered and more encouraged to tell their stories, and Hollywood and audiences have been welcoming. But, as with anything in the cultural and political sphere, for every time the pendulum swings one way, it always swings back, causing tonal shifts in our landscape. The massive swing towards inclusion and listening to the stories that were once lost is starting to swing back towards intolerance and bigotry, most likely similarly inspired by the current administration in the White House, which openly touts a return to the days before integration, equality and diversity. There is a fear that those new voices that were encouraged to be heard might be silenced again.
However, filmmaker Spike Lee has never been one to be silent. And he was never one to wait for any cultural acceptance or atmosphere of approval to make his voice heard. Lee was at the forefront of black cinema before it was ever in the mainstream.
Before Lee, black representation in movies was less than accurate, positive or even respectful. From the first representations of blacks in D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation in 1915, through to the representations of blacks as slaves, servants or criminals in most films, it wasn’t until the ‘50s, when actors such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge were the first to portray positive images of black Americans in mainstream cinema. But it was still rare to have the black experience be a subject of a mainstream movie, let alone created by a black filmmaker. Writer/producer/director/actor Spike Lee was a groundbreaking artist, whose films She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 and Do the Right Thing in 1989 were watershed moments in the history of black cinema, sparking a new wave of black cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Lee began the movement of black filmmakers using their voice and art to make a commentary on society, specifically race relations, and he inspired such filmmakers as John Singleton, Melvin Van Peebles, F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua, Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, and Robert Townsend.
For Spike Lee, being a filmmaker and being a black man in America have always been undeniably intertwined. The American black experience needs to be told, from every angle, every perspective and with every spotlight and mirror available. He’s never been afraid to be bold, loud, aggressive and in your face with his commentary and his reflections of the people and country he sees around him. So, in this turbulent time, where the pendulum of tolerance, acceptance and diversity is swinging back to a more divisive and hate-filled atmosphere, driven by political extremism, Spike Lee is naturally one to step up and make a return to his emotionally and politically-charged narratives. We need his voice now more than ever, because silence is compliance and there’s one thing Spike Lee will never be and that’s silent.
Lee’s current film, BlacKkKlansman, is a raging inferno of commentary, comedy, history and politics, a true story from the ‘70s that resonates now more than ever, so much so that he intentionally times its release to make an even bigger statement. The official release date of BlacKkKlansman, August 10, 2018, is exactly one year removed from a racially-charged riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked by a march of white supremacists, which resulted in the death of a young counter-protestor. Charlottesville and what happened there—and what has happened in our country since—is ever present in BlacKkKlansman, a movie about a piece of American history, but even more about America’s present.
What makes BlacKkKlansman so unique, and, dare I say entertaining, is the fact that historical perspective is ever-present in the movie. It is able to tell a specific story and build specific characters in a very specific place and time, but it also finds a way to be relevant to an American in 2018 and connects the dots between what happened then to what’s happening now. For a socially and politically conscious filmmaker, that is the holy grail and Lee walks the line with energy, emotion and passion.
It tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the history of the Colorado Springs, Colorado police force. In 1979, Stallworth (played by John David Washington) sees an opportunity to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and works with fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) to go undercover with the KKK in order to observe their activities and hopefully to prevent any crimes they have planned.
While the story of the infiltration of the KKK by a black man seems outlandish, it actually happened and this story is perfect for Lee, who is able to find the absurd built-in humor in the situation. There are many moments in BlacKkKlansman that are funny, mostly in an awkward and weird way, but there are an equal number of moments that are poignant, even quite moving, as Lee contrasts that absurdity with the dignity, pride and depth of passion in the black community portrayed in the film. Stallworth gets involved with a leader of the black resistance, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and when we are in her world, it is a stark contrast to the bumbling and somewhat ragtag white characters in the film. Straddling both worlds is Stallworth himself, and Washington (Denzel Washington’s son, in his first major starring role) does a good job creating a character who is determined and proud, but often a fish out of water who is making it up as he goes along.
BlacKkKlansman tells an interesting story, to be sure, but its story is not what recommends it. What makes BlacKkKlansman so watchable is the passion in Spike Lee’s filmmaking. In a day and age when so many movies are made just to make money, it’s nice to see an artist care only about what he’s saying and how he’s saying it. There is no mistaking the purpose of this movie and the entire experience of the movie leads up to an explosive and powerful ending that will leave you stunned and shaken. And that’s exactly the way Spike Lee wants it. The pendulum hasn’t swung quite yet.