A Reflection on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

A few months ago, I watched Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman. And I’ve wanted to write about it ever since.

But first let give you some related context.

When I was in college, I spent a semester student teaching in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

While I was there, I took a Spanish class with a lovely Guatemalan woman at a local university.

She told me about how the United States had been involved in destabilizing the Guatemalan government in the 50s and later on.

The elected Guatemalan government at that time was working to give more power to the exploited Guatemalan farmers.

But the US thought that the government was too communist.

So, our government supported a coup. This forced many indigenous Guatemalans to flee to other countries as refugees.

Many of the ones who stayed faced slaughter by the government which seized power during the coup and whom the US supported and trained.[1]

I quickly realized that this was a chapter of US history I had not learned in my history books.

And I also quickly realized that certain actions by governmental officials can appear quite different, whether you are white, Latino, or black; poor or comfortably middle class or wealthy; for the system or skeptical of it.

This conversation with my Spanish teacher helped me realize with greater clarity that is important to understand both the negative, as well as the positive, parts of your country’s history.

This is the only way you can understand the present.

Such understanding helps you work to make your country just and strong, avoiding the mistakes (and sins) of the past.

So, I regularly try to watch movies and read books by folks whose life experiences are very different from mine.

It helps me see the world and the country through their eyes.

And it helps me understand how certain events affect them, often very differently from the way they affect me.

This is one of the reasons I recently ended up watching Blackkklansman, which I will now write about.

Picture by Drew Willis, courtesy of alternative movie poster.

Now, of course this post has spoilers in it.

In addition, while this movie is generally hilarious, there is extremely strong racially and sexually violent language throughout the movie.

Spike Lee, the director, who is himself black, uses such language purposefully to portray history accurately.

I usually end up crying when I see racially violent scenes in movies or hear racially violent and sexual insults. Or I feel like throwing up. And I certainly did during these scenes.

So, I warn other sensitive viewers.

One of the most fascinating things about BlacKkKlansman is that it is based on actual life events and generally portrays these events accurately.

Ron Stallworth, the main protagonist in the film, was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs police force in the 70s.

Stallworth is played by Denzel Washington’s son, Jon David Washington, who does a phenomenal job in his role.

The cast of BlacKkKlansman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of Stallworth’s first job was to attend a gathering of students from the black student union of the local university.

His job was to, more or less, spy on Stokely Charmichael who was giving a speech there.

Charmichael was one of the leading voices of the black power movement in the 60s, a movement that sought to empower black people everywhere to live confident, self-determined lives.

However, police and other governmental officials at the time were highly suspicious of the black power movement.

At one time, the government considered it the greatest threat to the U.S.

Stallworth’s police chief tells him,

Carmichael is a former high muckity-muck with The Black Panthers and as far as I’m concerned, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was dead right when he said the Black Panthers are the greatest internal threat to the security of these United States . . .

so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good black people here in Colorado Springs and stirring them up.

Stallworth goes to the meeting. One of the moving parts of Charmichael’s speech in the movie went like this:

I just want to leave you, Sistas and Brothas, with these last words. If I am not for myself, who will I be? If I am for myself alone, who am I?

If not now, when? And if not you, who? We need an undying love for black people, wherever we may be.

All power to all the people.

In the movie, these words clearly move Ron Stallworth.

The next day, he sees an ad in paper explicitly recruiting people to join the KKK.

So, Stallworth takes it upon himself to call the KKK, pretending to be a white man interested in joining their organization.

Remember, this is a true story.

The KKK advertiser invites Stallworth to join the klan but says they must meet first in person.

This, of course, poses a problem for Ron Stallworth. So, Ron hatches a plan with a white colleague of his, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver).

Zimmerman agrees to pose as Stallworth and meet with the klan in person, while Stallworth will continue to chat with the klan on the phone.

Now, at first, their police chief is unsure Stallworth and Zimmerman can pull off the plan.

Specifically, he is concerned that Stallworth will not be able to sound “white enough” on the telephone.

In a funny, but somewhat painful, exchange Stallworth responds to the chief’s concerns,

Chief, some of us can speak the King’s English and others speak jive. Ron Stallworth, here, happens to be fluent in both.

The police chief gives them permission to proceed, and Stallworth and Zimmeran do indeed pull their plan off.

Zimmerman meets with local Klan members, and they embrace him wholeheartedly as Ron Stallworth.

Meanwhile, black Ron Stallworth continues to talk with various klan members on the telephone.

At one point, to secure his membership card to the KKK, Ron Stallworth ends up chatting on the phone with David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK himself.

Stallworth, in his KKK character, expounds on his hatred for all races but the one, true, Aryan race.

The conversation ends by Duke saying, “I’m happy to be talking to a true white American.”

And Stallworth responds, “God bless white America.”

Picture of the KKK, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Stallworth eventually receives his membership card from the KKK signed by David Duke himself, which Stallworth still carries today.

Remember, this is a true story.

Stallworth and Zimmerman spied on the KKK for seven months.

In that time, they prevented several cross burnings and deescalated several KKK rallies planning violence.

They also learned about two planned bombing attacks[2].

And they discovered that the klan was actively recruiting military personnel from all over the country to join their organization.

You can read an interview with the actual Ron Stallworth here: “The True Story Behind Blackkklansman, According to the Man Who Inspired the Movie.”

The real Ron Stallworth notes that the movie generally portrays the events he experienced accurately.

The real Ron Stallworth, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Stallworth notes that he chatted with David Duke on the phone several times after he received his card.

Regarding David Duke, the real Ron Stallworth notes,

He was a very nice guy in person. A very pleasant conversationalist.

The problem with David is he can’t go very long without talking about race and the minute he gets on the subject of race, Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde and the monster in him is unleashed.

It’s important to note that David Duke “served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989-1993.”

He is a real person, of course, and he had (and still has) a lot of political clout.

Interestingly, at one point, the klan, including David Duke, held a rally in Colorado Spring, Ron Stallworth’s hometown.

Ironically, Stallworth’s police chief assigned him not to investigate the rally but as security detail to David Duke.

Duke was extremely unhappy about this.

He treated Stallworth with contempt, making denigrating racial remarks.

Duke failed to realize that his security detail was, in fact, the man with whom he had been chatting regularly, and pleasantly, on the telephone for several months.

At one point in the movie, Seargent Trapp, one of the officers with whom  Stallworth works, discusses the KKK and David Duke.

Sergeant Trapp: I’ve got a friend, he keeps up with these groups. He says they’re moving away from the old violent racist styles.

That’s what Duke is peddling now, it’s become mainstream.

Ron Stallworth: Duke?

Sergeant Trapp: David Duke, current Grand Wizard of The Klan, but he’s always in a three piece suit.

He’s never seen in a hood or a robe in public. And he now goes by National Director. So, he’s clearly got his sights on higher office.

Ron Stallworth: Politics? How so?

Sergeant Trapp: I think it’s another way to sell hate.

Think about it: Affirmative Action, Immigration, Crime, Tax Reform. He says no one wants to be called a bigot anymore.

Because, Archie Bunker made that too un-cool.

So, the idea is under all these issues, everyday Americans can accept it, support it, until eventually, one day, you get somebody in the White House that embodies it.

Ron Stallworth: Huh, sorry. Come on. America would never elect somebody like David Duke, President of the United States of America.

Sergeant Trapp: Coming from a black man, that’s pretty naive. Why don’t you wake up?

Spike Lee ends the movie with footage from the Charlottesville riot.

Spike Lee, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In August of 2017, government officials in Charlottesville decided to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

This eventually led to a group of self-proclaimed white nationalists, including members of the  KKK, to hold a Unite the Right rally.

This rally led to the death of a young protestor named Heather Heyer.

She was killed while protesting the Unite the Right rally when a self-proclaimed white-supremacist rammed his car into the crowd.

The night before the rally, a group of neo-Nazis and KKK members “marched through the University of Virginia campus bearing torches” and chanting, “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”.

At the end of BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee shows news footage of President Trump saying about the rally violence,

“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.

Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists. You also had people that were very fine people.”

Then Spike Lee cuts to news footage of Daivd Duke (in real life) saying, “Because I believe that today in Charlottesville, this is a first step toward making a realization of something that Trump alluded to earlier in the campaign, which is… This is the first step toward taking America back.”

As I watched these closing scenes, I thought again about how important it is to listen to the stories of People of Color, as well as other historically marginalized and disenfranchized people.

Such stories can sometimes make white people like me uncomfortable because they highlight parallels, problems, and contradictions we ignore.

Or we fail to realize their significance because we aren’t threatened by them in any way.

At least, I know this is the case sometimes with me.

But I need such stories, even if they make me uncomfortable.

 James Baldwin, Africa-American writer and activist in the 60s said,

It is not for us to cool it.

James Baldwin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks, Spike Lee, and BlacKkKlansman, for not cooling it.

You can watch BlacKkKlansman here.

You might also like these posts:

What I Learned from Teaching African Philosophy this Semester.

Why Social Justice Matters for Everyone, According to a Really Cool Nun.

Teaching My Students to Be Maladjusted


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[1] You can read more about these events in Stephen Schlesinger’s article, “The Ghost of Guatemala’s Past”. New York Times. June 3, 2011.

[2] The bombing attacks were planned against gay bars, although the KKK did carry out several bombings of African-American churches around this time.

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