In an age of the absence of subtlety, BlacKkKlansman is arguably the perfect movie to tackle the issue of racism in America. It presents a black-and-white world of good versus evil, of racism and its opposite, in a clear-cut binary relationship. The cops – with one clear exception – are reasonable, anti-racist people, while the KKK are obnoxious and generally a little backward. Turning the tables perhaps on the now-infamous Birth of a Nation – the 1915 silent movie which both contributed to dehumanizing African Americans while revitalizing the KKK and their cross-burning motif – BlacKkKlansman is sufficiently a Manichean popcorn movie to leave no one in doubt that racism against people of colour is wrong.
In fairness to the movie, there are moments of ambiguity that serve as talking points – but only a few. Mainly, this involves African American cop and protagonist Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his relationship with Black activist Patrice (Laura Harrier); how he navigates this relationship with someone ideologically opposed to the institution he serves carries a tension. Yet not much tension: Stallworth gets around this complexity by simply not telling her his undercover-cop status. They talk, but we never see Stallworth agonising over loyalties, his loyalty to the police force remaining unfazed.
This superficial treatment of their relationship is indicative of the main flaw of the film for me, namely a weirdly simplistic depiction of let's-all-get-along. For one, the representation of the police as generally good eggs - evident in their office celebrations at the end - surely fails to represent the systemic targeting of African Americans by the police in the US – brilliant documentaries like 13th indicate the much greater scale of racism in the institutions of law enforcement. To cite some issues ignored by the film, the profit-making policies of mass incarceration in the U.S. appear designed to marginalize African Americans while filling U.S. prisons with profit-churning labour. Politically too, being tough on crime is the kind of electoral issue that Republicans and Democrats appear desperate to embrace, from Nixon to Clinton, and more broadly, law enforcement policies which implicitly target African American communities are what made the Republican Party the dominant power in the southern states of the U.S. Presenting the police as containing a few bad apples does nothing to address or represent this deeply embedded structural racism.Of the KKK, meanwhile, I do also wonder at the value of showing racists in such two-dimensional terms. As a contrast, I felt Edward Norton's complex performance of a neo-nazi in American History X (1998) was both much more convincing and a better starting point for a discussion on racism and its relationship with power and violence, as well as economics. But then, perhaps times are different now: with Trump in the White House and Fox News and online media having contributed to the polarizing of political and racial discourses like never before, director Spike Lee may well be trying to reach out to a decent 'majority' for whom Manichean Marvel movies are the order of the day. Like a Marvel movie indeed, the film's main characters Ron Stallworth and his trusty white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) emerge as a likeable duo with all the complexity of Captain America and his all-American shield. President Trump is bad, goes the message in the news footage at the end, and let's not allow a few bad apples – and the weird madness of racists holding torches – to spoil the party. It says much about our age that such a simplistic message carries its own weighty profundity, one that I found myself applauding with much of the audience as the credits rolled.