How Spike Lee’s films leave a lasting impact

By LAURA OING | February 28, 2019

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Georges Biard/ cc by-sa 4.0 Spike Lee’s film BlaKkKlansman evokes an intense emotional reaction.

So the Oscars were somewhat disappointing. Just three years after the #OscarsSoWhite boycott, just two years after the subsequent wave of pushing for more diverse voices in Hollywood began, the Academy has honored Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book with some of the supposedly highest honors Hollywood has to offer. Especially as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continue to call on Hollywood to hold sexual assaulters accountable, these wins are pretty upsetting for a number of reasons, though, unfortunately, not all that surprising. 

At the same time, I’m trying to not get so bogged down with the literal and metaphorical upsets of this year’s Academy Awards, instead focusing on the good things that did happen. For example, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, won Best Animated Feature, even against the giants that are Disney’s Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet. My personal favorite moment of the night, however, was Spike Lee winning his first Academy Award in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for the film BlacKkKlansman.  

BlacKkKlansman, which was released in August 2018, is based on the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. In his book, Stallworth tells the true story of his time in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Though I have not read the book, I assume that some things were changed to make the movie more sensational — though its sheer premise is already a pretty wild ride. As a disclaimer, this article is solely based on what I have seen in the film. 

In the film, it doesn’t take young Ron Stallworth, the very first black detective in Colorado Springs, long to become frustrated with the fact that he has yet to receive any major assignments. While reading the local newspaper at work, Stallworth, who is portrayed by John David Washington, decides to respond to an advertisement seeking new members to join the town’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Through a series of phone calls, Stallworth eventually wins the trust of the chapter’s leaders and is able to set up an in-person meeting with the men.  

With the help of his fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish man who poses as a Christian man named Ron Stallworth, they are able to infiltrate the KKK, getting a firsthand look at the racism and violence that dominates what its members insist only be referred to as “the organization.”  

The real Stallworth, in an effort to expedite the process of getting an official membership card, even has phone calls with David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK at the time of the Colorado Springs investigation. By gaining the trust of these racist men, Stallworth and Zimmerman are able to detect clues that the KKK is in the process of planning a possible attack against the local college’s Black Student Union. 

In case you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I’ll just say that this movie is wildly intense until its last seconds. It is hard to believe that the hateful words and acts of racism in the film came out of a true story, at least in their essence; they are so awful you are almost left hoping that they were fabricated or sensationalized for the sake of the film. 

When I first saw BlacKkKlansman over the summer, I cried at the end. I’m still trying to figure out why. In usual Spike Lee fashion, the film features lots of beautiful cinematography and editing that is not only visually-pleasing and interesting in its uniqueness, but also forces viewers to pay attention to certain words, phrases, and actions. 

For example, in some scenes viewers will see or hear the same action or phrase several times in quick succession, creating a sense of urgency. So perhaps my tears were simply the effects of these techniques, but I think there’s more to it than that. As with all of Spike Lee’s work, this film is about more than entertainment. It goes beyond the typical film-viewing experience as although the film ends, the way that it does so forces viewers to continue thinking about its events and their frightening relevancy to the present day.

This is not a movie that you can just walk away from, and I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed the way it made me think about so many different aspects of our society. Even though it may leave you feeling sad, hopeless, angry, or any mixture of such negative emotions, I can easily see BlacKkKlansman retaining a place in history as an invaluable story worth spreading to as many viewers as possible. 

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