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Charlottesville parallel is exhilarating in ‘Blackkklansman’

In 1978, a black police officer in Colorado Springs infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Director Spike Lee makes this unlikely story the basis of his new film, “Blackkklansman.” It may depict events that are forty years old but they’re given a decidedly up-to-date gloss because in Spike Lee’s eyes, history is repeating itself. 1978 might as well be 2018.

Ron Stallworth was 21 years old when he became Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer. After a series of unsatisfying desk jobs with the department, he gets his first break when he responds to a newspaper ad recruiting new members to the local chapter of the KKK.

“Hello. This is Ron Stallworth calling. Who am I speaking with?
This is David Duke.
Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan? That David Duke?
Last time I checked. What can I do you for?
Well, since you asked, I hate blacks. I hate Jews, Mexicans, and Irish. Italians and Chinese, but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats and really anyone else that doesn’t have pure white arian blood running through their veins.
I’m happy to be talking to a true white American.
God bless white America.”

Like the telemarketer in “Sorry To Bother You,” Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son) adopts a “white voice” and wins his way into the good graces of the KKK, so much so that they want to meet him in person. Obviously, this presents a dilemma but also an opportunity for some good police work.

“How do you propose to make this investigation.
We’ll establish contact over the phone. We’ll need a white officer to play me when they meet face-to-face. So that it becomes a combined (inaudible).”
Can you do that?
With the right white man, we can do anything.”

(That’s a nice zinger at the end.)

At the same time that Stallworth is working with an undercover white cop (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the KKK, he’s also doing his own police undercover work infiltrating the local Black Student Union. In the movie, but not in real life, Stallworth even begins dating the Student Union president. Suspense naturally builds as both the white cop and Stallworth are in danger of having their covers blown.

“I’m not risking my life to prevent some rednecks from lighting a couple of sticks on fire.
This is your job. What’s your problem?
That’s my problem. For you, it’s a crusade. For me, it’s a job. It’s not personal, nor should it be.
Why haven’t you bought into this?
Why should I?
Because you’re Jewish, brother. You’ve been passing for a WASP. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant cherry pie, hot dog, white boy … Doesn’t that hatred you’ve been hearing the Klan say, doesn’t that piss you off?
Of course it does.
Then why are you acting like you don’t have skin in the game, brother?
Rookie, that’s my business.
It’s our business.”

Lee takes other liberties with the true story but one of the more
bizarre aspects of the film really did happen. Stallworth was indeed assigned to be David Duke’s police bodyguard when the KKK leader came to town. And Duke really did pose with the real Ron Stallworth for a photo taken by the fake (white) Ron Stallworth at a KKK lunch.

Actor Topher Grace plays Duke and manages to capture the leader’s self-righteous unctiousness.

“Today we are privileged to be among white men. And white women. (chuckles) Such as yourselves. Real warriors for the real America. For the America that our ancestors fought and died for. The true, white American race, the backbone from whence came our great Southern heritage. And I want to thank you for never putting your country second. America first, America first.”

The echoes of Donald Trump are clearly intentional. The KKK in the film also comes perilously close to saying, without quite saying, “Make America Great Again.”

Lee drives the point home even further with a powerful, inflammatory
5-minute coda to the movie: news footage of last year’s torch-bearing white supremacists’ march and rally at Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s no accident this film is being released on the anniversary weekend of “Charlottesville.”
It’s also no accident that both the President and David Duke (the real David Duke) show up in pretty damning clips, either downplaying or justifying what happened there.

The Charlottesville parallel is exhilarating but feels unnecessary. It’s clear in every frame of the movie that Spike Lee is furious with the current state of affairs and making that even more explicit seems like overkill. But I take his point. White America is a lot like Adam Driver’s undercover cop, who pretends he doesn’t have skin in the game. Ron Stallworth and Spike Lee are both shouting at us, “it’s all our business.”

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