Over the past three and a half decades, Spike Lee has earned the title of America’s preeminent filmmaker on the subject of blackness, and his new feature BlacKkKlansman provides a powerful reminder of why that is. The unlikely true story of Ron Stallworth (played in the film by John David Washington), a black cop who successfully infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the late 1970s, provides the ideal vessel for Lee’s perspectives on race in the here and now.
Within its two blistering hours, the film contains currents of frustration over police brutality, the vital burden of being responsible for effecting change and the growing normalization of bigotry. (The Cannes-feted film concludes with a much-talked-about sequence that makes electrifying use of the footage shot during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.)
But Stallworth couldn’t have pulled off the harebrained operation without the aid of his partner. Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, in a role altered substantially for the script’s purposes), a character through whom Lee interweaves an adjacent social battle. Stallworth and Zimmerman’s daring undercover stint — the former over the phone, the latter in-person — draws a boldfaced parallel between the black and Jewish experiences, exploring the commonalities and key differences connecting two identities often remolded to fit into a hostile environment. The advertising has played up the black power ethic and the film’s aesthetic harkens back to classic blaxploitation, but the film itself gives viewers plenty to pore over regarding another cultural identity.
BlacKkKlansman begins and ends with displays of ideological violence freely conflating antipathy toward black and Jewish people: Early on, Alec Baldwin makes a cameo as a bespectacled fearmonger recording a PSA about assorted Jew “conspiracies,” and at the previously mentioned Charlottesville demonstration that closes the film, Nazi swastikas and Confederate stars-and-bars flags flew as one. Lee echoes Martin Niemöller’s famed “First They Came…” poem in his assertion of collective duty among marginalized peoples, both to ourselves and each other.
This quandary has been complicated for a Jewish population in some instances capable of going fully unnoticed, but dire emergency — like, say, the organized hatred of the KKK — renders the situation far simpler. BlacKkKlansman suggests that navigating Jewish selfhood is a similarly complex obstacle course of code-switching; many American Jews are white and yet an increasingly frequent subject of bigotry.
Jewish and black peoples have both endured slavery and catastrophic massacres, and in America — whether that’s Stallworth’s era or our own — they can find solidarity around persecution on a more everyday level. Though there’s been plenty of discord in the past, some of it in close proximity to Lee himself, there should be more bonding these two cultures together than keeping them apart. Limited to Flip and many Jews like him, however, is the ability to blend in and the corresponding responsibility not to.
The Jewish identity is defined sometimes by religious practice and sometimes by blood. Not unlike myself, Zimmerman considers himself a secular Jew. He doesn’t observe the Sabbath day, he didn’t regularly attend synagogue and he never had a bar mitzvah. Living in a largely gentile community, he didn’t even go to that many mitzvahs for other kids. To his coworkers or any other casual observer, his Judaism wouldn’t be apparent save for the gold chain a fellow cop refers to as a “Jew necklace,” which Zimmerman chidingly corrects to the proper Star of David. He’s ideally equipped to ingratiate himself with the local KKK, his appearance as phonily inconspicuous as the “white voice” that Stallworth uses to con the yokels over the phone.
With all the toxic bile he nonchalantly spews at them during meetings, Zimmerman makes himself indistinguishable from the true-blue KKK members, with the irony of a Jew on an anti-Semitic rant being alternately played for laughs and tension. (And, during a scene wherein one particularly cautious KKK member brandishes a lie detector and demands Zimmerman produce an uncircumcised penis to prove his goyische bona fides, both.)
As he debriefs with Stallworth back at the station following a charged meetup with the KKK, Zimmerman makes an offhanded comment about how he never really felt Jewish until he had to pretend he wasn’t. Aside from any jewelry expressing that Judaism, it didn’t presently weigh on Zimmerman’s mind during his day-to-day life; it was something neutral that he could afford to take for granted. Whether or not a Jew chooses to wear that dimension of themselves on their sleeve is just that, a volitive decision that Stallworth and other people of color aren’t granted the opportunity to make.
Around fellow police, Stallworth sticks out as what the chief refers to as their district’s “Jackie Robinson,” a barrier-breaker nonetheless treated to a constant barrage of harassment and slurs. One gets the impression Zimmerman may have valued his low profile precisely because it exempts him from such treatment. Racists don’t usually look too fondly on the Jews, either.
The ability to assimilate and fly under the radar has its utilities, but any advantage it brings comes with a cost. Throughout the film, Stallworth gets to know Patrice (Laura Harrier), the leader of the nearby college’s Black Student Union, an avowed radical who frowns on her new squeeze’s involvement with a law enforcement organization steeped in a prejudicial history. She emphasizes the importance of living visibly, of being proud and vocal about personal identity in the face of a society that would prefer that everyone quiet down and fall in line. And Lee spares no pains to illustrate how much is at stake, bringing in an elder activist played by real-life civil rights fighter Harry Belafonte to reminisce about the horrors of a lynching he witnessed firsthand. There may be survival in silence, but it erases history and the future alike, ultimately threatening the group in question’s basic existence.
The luxury of hanging back and leaving the dismantling of fascism to those most immediately affected by it will not forestall its eventual spread to the passive. So long as the aims of hatred are broad, all those in its crosshairs share a single struggle. And that’s the double truth, Ruth!