Blackkklansman: Humanity’s Fight for Equal Rights

Paper by Ashley Fields.

In Spike Lee’s recent award-winning film, Blackkklansman (2018), Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in Colorado Springs, sets out to infiltrate and unveil the violent nature of the Ku Klux Klan. As an act of sacrifice and earning her place within the Klan, Connie, a Ku Klux Klan members wife, detonates a C4 bomb as an attack on the Black Student Union. This act of white supremacist terrorism exemplifies the savagery members of the Klan engage in to display their loyalty to the organization. Lee’s consistent use of suspenseful cross-cutting, variations in camera angles, and emotional music throughout the film is anxiously embodied in the unraveling of the attack. The following analysis will illustrate how the film-makers’ choice of music, mise-en-scene, camera work, editing, and narrative structure intensifies the violent depiction of reality African-American’s faced in response to fighting for their rights of freedom.

Lee, who is no stranger when it comes to creating historically significant films, has explored not only racial topics in film, but political issues, crime, and poverty, just to name a few. In terms of his most recent journey, Blackkklansman, Lee centered in on creating this fact- based film with the expertise he has exceedingly demonstrated on the big screen. The reality of this film, based on the book “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth, follows a 4-act structure, with the main character being Stallworth. The first act can be seen as the beginning of the film before Stallworth makes contact with the Klan. This includes the introduction of the film, introducing the film’s main characters, and introducing the film’s political theme of civil rights. Stallworth becomes the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Department, and almost immediately, we discover his first goal of gaining insight on the Black Student Union. Immediately following, Stallworth is reassigned to the intelligence division, where he makes his first contact with the Ku Klux Klan posing as a white man, a turning point. The second act of this structure involves Stallworth’s newfound goals of infiltrating and unveiling the violent nature of the Ku Klux Klan. The takedown of the Klan can be seen as a private goal of Stallworth’s, while his public goal is to provide a safer world for all individual’s, especially African-American’s. Shortly after the turning point, Stallworth and Flip experience a complication in the undercover job when Flip gets a gun pointed to his head at the Klan members meeting. This misfortune expresses how these characters are experiencing two seperate goals, which unfortunately, don’t align. The third act can be viewed as the time between the induction ceremony leading up to the moment the bomb explodes. There is much conflict and resistance within these scenes, between the issue of an African-American cop (Stallworth) being assigned to protect David Duke, the Head Wizard of the Klan, as well as the conflict that arises in preparation of the bombing. Since the first plan of attack didn’t go as scheduled, as many police officers were sent to the location, Connie, the bomber, follows up with second plan—bombing Patrice’s house. The deadline component of this act can be viewed as the premeditated plan for the bombing, as there was a subquential deadline attached to it as well as a dire need for the task to be accomplished. We see throughout these scenes that Stallworth and Flip are now dependent on one another, and Flip now has no issue in assisting Stallworth’s personal goal of demolishing the Klan. After the bombing, we come into a resolution phase, act four. In final act of this 4-phase structure, we see Stallworth become a hero. He not only is viewed as heroic for saving Patrice from the bomb, but also for arresting Connie, who unintentionally killed Felix and other members of the Klan with the bomb, and finally accomplishing his desired goal of taking out the Klan, even if not as a whole.

Throughout the film we are presented with malicious threats and attacks performed by the Klan, all leading up to the most ruthless and inhumane act, the bombing performed by Connie. Before the bombing occurs, Duke delivers an empowering speech that outlines the political ideologies of the white supremacist group; the radical extremists who resort to violence to rid of any non-arian blood. The first key event we witness that sets this traumatic event into action is the silent code tapped onto the wrist of one another between Duke and Felix. As this signals the approval of the attack, we see Connie receive a duffel bag from the creater of the bomb. Connie sets off to perform this act as Felix reassures her of the importance of her sacrifice and that in doing this murderous act, she will prove her worthiness to the Klan. The indescribable malice associated with this act is merely in regaurds of race, providing us with a clear political issue of civil rights. Not only is this scene dramatically powerful due to the fact that it’s a premeditated attack from one extremist political party to the suffering African-American party fighting for the sole purpose of life or death; but the two key characters within this scene are women. The main women presented in the film are Patrice and Connie, both who, throughout the film, have steadily grown their strength and power as women. The importance of women’s rights being weaved into the political theme of civil rights builds the further argument of this theme. Patrice, President of the Black Student Union, has a leading, powerful role from the start to the end of the film. In reference to previous films we’ve seen in class, I find great similarities in how Lee portrayed this strong character to how women are portrayed in the film Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2015). When interviewed, the director of Timbuktu, Sissako, states that he “wanted to show and value the strength of women—all women” (Guillén, 44). I believe that, in one way or another, this too was Lee’s goal in his portrayal of women in his film. Sissako also mentions in his interview that he feels that “when societies are going through war, through crisis, this aspect bcomes more apparent” (Guillén, 44). This quote can also be applied to Patrice and Connie’s characters in the fact that they fought when they needed to most, exhibiting their strength, especially in war. Lee’s choice of representing women in this monumental and pivotal point in the film is a great reminder of the great fight women had in gaining their own rights during this era. These women were both extremists to an extent, and whether it be for good or evil, chose to fight and express their rights as women. After planting the bomb, Stallworth catches Connie in the act of walking away from the crime scene and tackles and detains her. With Lee’s combinatioal use of emotional music tethering at our emotions, as well as the intense cross-cutting of different angles of the detaining, we are drawn further into the suspense of this pursuit. Two officers arrive on the scene and immediately take down the undercover African- American officer on simplistic idiotic instinct, taking Connie’s word that he has assaulted and raped her. To no avail, and notably late as mentioned by Stallworth, Flip arrives on scene to dismiss the racists cops and free his partner from their control. It’s important to note that, despite its major contribution to the film, the bombing scene was one of the only scenes fabricated in the film. Although historically inaccurate, the bomb plot in the film was inspired by an unreated, actual Ku Klux Klan bombing, the 16th street baptist church bombing. In this event, four members of the Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite attacked to a timing device beneath the steps of a church. In doing this racially inclined violent act, four innocent lives were taken. Gerry Coulter described the misuse of history in the film The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007) as “playing with reality and history” (9). In terms of the bombing scene, although historically inaccurate, since an event of such sorts has actually occurred it is, in my mind, dismissive. If a bombing hadn’t occured, it may have changed my viewing on the inaccurate history being presented in this scene.

A consistent theme throughout the film, violence, is a critical element in the developement of the films political theme of civil rights. Violence is presented to us in a multitude of ways, incuding hateful speech, racial slurs, and physical violence. The violent acts within the bombing scene embodies the repulsive ideals that the Klan was founded on. This terrorist group mutilated and torched the African-American race for their simple existence. These individuals are continually fighting for the simple right of equality, while the white suprematist political party goes to vast extents to ensure this will never happen. Violence is first presented to us in the very first scene of the film when footage from the film, Gone with the Wind (David O. Selznick, 1939), shows wounded Confederate soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. This then transitions to a black-and-white video of a man, whom with hate-filled speech, publicly attacks minorities. At Flip’s first undercover job at the Ku Klux Klan meeting, we are undoubtedly presented with many forms of violence. From the Klan discussing future attacks, using guns as a scare tactic to get Flip to take a polygraph test, and shooting at Stallworth’s vehicle after he makes a commotion, violence is an evident theme within the Klan. The unethically violent nature of the racially motivated lynching of Jesse Washington is an important part of film where Lee exemplifies the theme of violence and civil rights. Lee’s use of cross-cutting to dramatically show the contrast between the story telling of Jesse Washington and the Klan viewing of The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) exemplifies the themes presented. In the scene involving the greatest acts of violence, the scene of the bombing, violence and civil rights are evidently clear in nearly every word and action taking place. Being that all Klan members are involved somehow, someway in this premeditated attack, it’s a vital scene in relation to the theme of violence. Within this scene we see another act of violence when Stallman is falsely arrested and put into handcuffs solely because Connie said he raped her, although he said and tried his best to prove he was an undercover cop. Civil rights comes into play within this act of violence when Stallman was slammed to the ground and shown an unethical form of violence and brutality, showing the shameful treatment many African-American individuals go through not only in this time period, but in the present world as well. Towards the end of the film, Officer Landers is seen verbally harassing Patrice, to which he remarks that he could shoot her if he felt like it and nothing would happen. These words, being said in terms of race, exemplifying the theme again of violence associated with civil rights. The final and most emotionally devastating scene of violence pays tribute to Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter- protestor who was killed in the Charlottesville car attack during the Unite the Right Rally.

Lee’s use of visual engagements in this historically significant film draws the viewer deeper emotionally and helps further the viewpoint from the African-American’s eyes. Throughout the film, Lee utilizes a combination of natural exposure and low exposure to set different moods for different scenes. This gives an illusions of the film being dated to the time of the film, as well as makes for greater anticipation of the scenes. For example, in the scene of the Black Student Union meeting, Lee chooses to zoom in on the audiences faces with extremely low exposure, creating a look as if the audience’s heads are floating. This look creates a dream- like mood, which almost stands as a metaphor to viewers in relation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This public speech, delivered by the leading civil rights activist, MLK, called for civil and economic rights, as well as the end to racism. This speech can significantly tie into the political aspects of this film, as many political themes being portrayed involve racism, equality, and basic human rights. A consistent pattern that Lee utilizes that adds heavily to his personal film style, is a repetition of cross-cutting when anticipating suspenseful scenes. He also combines this cross-cut editing style with suspenseful music that pulls the emotions of viewers. Another key aspect that adds to the overall style of the film is the clear sounds within this film such as gun shots and the clicks of every photograph. Lee opts to use loud music and sound to create a dramatic, suspenseful state to draw viewers in to the importance of each scene. A key event that we see Lee emphasize on with a close up is at the gathering when Duke and Felix perform their secret code wrist taps using only two fingers. This visually translates the importance of their violent murderous act. Another intereseting note of Lee’s choice of style is when the bomb detonates sending everyone into screaming chaos, Lee appears to opt out of using a handheld camera, and rather shakes a still camera on a frame as Flip pulls up to the scene. This almost translates as a metaphor that Flip is coming into the scene to get things straightened out, as Lee is straightening out the camera. Lee’s choice in using realistic costumes and natural ligting aids in the overall feel of the film, bringing a realistic aspect to such things almost translates viewers to believe the content to be realistic as well.

Spike Lee’s award winning film, Blackkklansman (2018), is nothing short of an impactful film. Stallworth’s character embodies the courage not many have, and exemplified his strength and desire to end racial violence throughout the film. When discussing the film Fear and Desire (Stanley Rubrick, 1953), Jackson Burgess notes that the film “has a striking purity and honesty and is unmistakably the product of a single man’s striving” (The Anti-Militarism of Stanley Kubrick, 2013). I believe that Stallworth exhibits this pure, honest impact in Blackkklansman in how he single-handedly sought out the Klan and didn’t stop until his job was finished. His selfless actions proved him to be the man needed in such distraught times. Lee’s consistent use of suspenseful cross-cutting, variations in camera angles, and emotional music throughout the film further demonstrated the narrative of the film and brought the film together as a whole. Without Lee’s impactful style and such strong storylines, the historical significance of this film wouldn’t be what it is today.

Works Cited
Guillén, Michael. “Hidden Certainties and Active Soubts: An Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako”. Cinaste, (Spring 2015). pp. 42-45.
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Storytelling and History as a Great Toy – The Lives of Others”. Wide Screen. V1. Issue 2. (June 2010). pp. 1-9.
Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick”. Film Quarterly. V18.N1 (Autumn, 1964). pp. 4-11.

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