71 BlacKkKlansman (2018)

“Race and Discrimination in BlacKkKlansman (2018)”

by Nemo Collazo


The “Blaxploitation” genre has been around for a long time. Since the 1970s, these gritty films starring predominantly black actors and directors have cemented their place in Hollywood’s legacy. Films like Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972) helped pave the way for other cheaply made films to follow in the 70s until the genre eventually burned itself out. While the genre was seen as a way to exploit poor black communities by taking their money through cheap entertainment, some of these movies managed to deal with complex themes of class and racism that inspired the next generation of black filmmakers. One of these filmmakers was the independent director Spike Lee, whose works deal with the issues that African-Americans face in modern America, such as class and racism. One of his most recent works, BlacKkKlansman, is no exception to these topics, being an homage to the Blaxploitation films of the era, but mostly serving as a commentary on racism in 1970s America and its parallels to the modern day.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American detective in the 1970s who managed to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan in an investigation. When starting the investigation, Ron enlists the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman to pose as him for the in-person rallies while he tries to gather information from the members over the phone. Ron faces discrimination and blatant racism throughout the film, one example being a corrupt police officer, Andy Landers, who gives him a hard time by harassing him in the workplace. Flip, when posing as Ron, is given a similar treatment by one of the Klu Klux Klan members, an anti-semetic man who is suspicious that Flip is Jewish based on looks alone, a strange hunch that happens to be right, as Flip is Jewish. The film revolves around these two trying to accomplish their mission despite their minority status, with Ron even befriending David Duke, a real former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan who hides racist ideologies underneath a soft spoken character and three-piece suit. The film also uses Duke to allude to the similarities of racism and discrimination in the current era, such as when Ron tells his captain that “America would never elect someone like David Duke President of the United States of America,” (48:17) which clearly alludes to the President at the time the film was released. The ending of the film even shows graphic footage from a 2017 White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman protesting the event was killed after a man drove his car into a group of protesters. This was a deliberate choice by Spike Lee, who went on record saying that the scene had to be put in the movie in order to get the world to “‘wake up’ to the horrific reality of racism,” (Howell 1).

Ron is a clear representation of the film’s attempt to encode difference into its text, the difference being race. Ron is constantly surrounded by white people (usually male) in the film, but the film uses bright lighting on Ron’s face to distinguish him, fully showing off all of his features while placing most of the racist white characters in darker rooms and under heavy shadows. This seems to be intentional, a choice that harkens back to a common criticism of filming African Americans. Because early films were light-sensitive, in order to capture the skin tones of white protagonists, characters with darker skin were underexposed, and you couldn’t see their features as well. This “undetected bias” has been an issue for decades, especially in older blaxploitation movies, and it’s an issue that BlacKkKlansman is seemingly aware of. An example is the scene where Ron talks to Chief Bridges about sending a white officer to pose as him for the clan meetings. The movie is color-corrected and lit in such a way that both Ron and the two white police officers in the room have full details on their skin tones, allowing for more expression in the scene. This scene also expresses difference through the story itself, with Ron having to convince his white officer that he’s “fluent in both King’s English and jive,” (31:41) when the chief is operating under the assumption that the Klan will know the difference in how both races speak. Ron himself has a very distinct voice from every other character in the movie, which further emphasizes the difference not just between him and white people, but even his black co-stars. The scene is one of many that displays difference through technical prowess, dialogue, and acting.

Along with difference, power is also heavily expressed throughout the film. Lee wanted to inspire his audience “to advocate for black people in their struggle for equal power. It drives home the idea that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have the upper hand in America and that the rest of the population is, to one extent or another, at a disadvantage.” (Omerovic 1). Despite being part of law enforcement, Ron is constantly at a disadvantage due to his skin color, but he always manages to maintain more power than the antagonists. An example of this is when he first calls David Duke. The scene is filmed at a dutch angle, a slanted angle that puts characters on a slope, with both sides of the conversation keeping the characters positioned as though they are mirroring each other. In the scene, Ron manages to trick David Duke into thinking that he’s a white man through his voice and compliments alone, and Duke even tells him he’s glad to “be talking to a true white American,” (58:02).


Ron Stallworth (John David Washington and David Duke (Topher Grace) in BlacKkKlansman, 2018 (Screengrab)
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington and David Duke (Topher Grace) in BlacKkKlansman, 2018 (Screengrab)


Ron has equal power over Duke here, and the mirror-effect is used to show that Ron, representing black people as a whole, are equal to white people. These phone calls are filmed with similar angles again, but in the final call where Ron finally reveals that he’s black to Duke, the camera is balanced and level, with Ron surrounded by his peers who actually respect him, while Duke is completely alone, stripping away any power he has. Another scene that displays power is when Ron spies on the KKK meeting towards the end of the film (1:36:18). “The genius cinematography of this scene not only adds emotion, but also portrays Stallworth as superior to everyone else in the room. This depiction directly contrasts the ideology of white supremacists and sways the viewers to ally with people of color,” (Omerovic 1). This interpretation of the scene helps shift the balance of power throughout the film, empowering black people and allowing the white audience to sympathize, which is something that is needed in the modern era, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years due to police abusing their power against people of color.

Because this film revolves around infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the 70s, discrimination and oppression is a major theme throughout the movie. Being the only black detective in the precinct, Ron fights discrimination in his own workplace, growing frustrated with many of his coworkers calling black suspects “frogs,” and butting heads with Landers, who goes out of his way to aggravate Ron through various means. Another character that heavily advocates against blatant discrimination is Ron’s love interest Patrice, the president of Colorado College’s Black Student Union. Patrice fights against discrimination throughout the film, especially in the scene where she and Kwame Ture, an organizer in the civil rights movement, are pulled over by Landers. Landers uses both his power and status to pull over Kwame based on their looks alone, and abuses his power by laying hands on Patrice. This blatant discrimination is also displayed by, unsurprisingly, the Klan members. They use racist terms against minorities, constantly belittle black and Jewish people, and put themselves on a pedestal based on their color. But discrimination is also shown on the other side of the coin with Patrice, who refers to all cops as “Pigs,” which Ron takes offense to. She says that the system is corrupt and that “you can’t change things from the inside, it’s a racist system,” (1:03:27) which is true, but Ron tries to uphold the belief that he can change the system from the inside, even if he sometimes does feel like “two different people all the time.” (1:04:00). As stated in the earlier paragraph, this movie’s display of discrimination does a good job of making you despise the antagonists and root for the protagonist, and I wholeheartedly agree with how Ron – and the film itself – fights against discrimination, by trying to cut the evil out of the system and give “all power to all the people,” as stated in the film. A concern that I thought of with fighting discrimination is inciting more violence. Luckily, this movie does realize this. One review of the movie states: “it’s abundantly clear that the black people holding guns, in 1972, at the end of BlacKkKlansman do so entirely in self-defense against a real and apparently rising threat to those who would challenge white supremacy” (Moore 1). The movie doesn’t wish to incite more violence, rather show the implications of it through its message.


Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice (Laura Harrier) in BlacKkKlansman, 2018 (screengrab)
Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice (Laura Harrier) in BlacKkKlansman, 2018 (screengrab)


Despite its acclaim, this movie did receive criticism, both for its implications and its story. Popular news website Vox gave strong criticism towards how the story is written and how it tries to convey its message to the audience, stating:

BlacKkKlansman gives its white audience an out: Most any white audience member is going to find their avatar in these folks, the good cops who toss the bad apple. But now it’s 2018, and we all consider ourselves very woke about race. Like the good cops in the movie, we’re well-intentioned but a little more enlightened! And that’s only natural given the ensuing decades, right? Every laugh in the movie is at the expense of the dumb racist yokels and their dumb racist yokel ideas,” (Wilkinson 1).

This criticism refers to how the KKK is portrayed without any nuance – every facet of their characters are that of bumbling, idiotic fools who parrot the same racist ideologies without any sympathy for those who are different. I disagree with this criticism heavily, mostly because the internet has shown me that people like this still exist (which the review touches on), but also because I think this was an intentional decision. By portraying the KKK in this way, rather than intelligent and calculating antagonists, Lee has stripped all power away from the KKK. We find ourselves laughing at this organization rather than being afraid of them. This changes the social perception – more unconsciously than consciously – of the KKK, thus taking their fearful perception away. Obviously, they did terrible things in the past, but movies like these help to make sure they will never be feared again.

I chose this movie because I felt it does an excellent job of portraying discrimination and how harmful it truly is, while also being an entertaining movie on the surface. The story is exciting, always ramping up the stakes until the explosive climax, and its allusions to the modern day, while obvious at times, still makes for a thought provoking piece, and I noticed several other allusions that passed over my head on a rewatch. While I can’t relate completely to every character’s struggle completely in the movie, one line did resonate with me in particular – the line where Ron expresses to Patrice that he feels “like two different people all the time.” (1:04:00) I found myself relating to this line, as I am mixed-race. I never felt White, or Filipino, or Mexican in my childhood, and that confusion about my identity being tied to my heritage still remains with me to this day. Ron’s double-life as a cop and as a black man has him torn between two different worlds, and he eventually finds his identity as a man who can help change a system from the inside, even if the changes are small. After delving further into this movie’s themes, I find myself wondering if I too can overcome this confusion, and cement my identity.

In conclusion, BlacKkKlansman is an excellent commentary on racism and discrimination, using these as intentional story elements to further challenge our current worldview. It uses lighting and cinematography to highlight the differences between the black and white body, furthur displaying difference and power while also giving more power to the African-American and taking it away from the white antagonists, which was not the case in the 70s. This, along with the clever but sometimes unsubtle writing, allows it to draw parallels to our current time, and when the credits roll, it leaves the audience with one final question: “Have we really changed?”


Works Cited 

Howell, Peter. “Spike Lee Film Calling on World to ‘Wake Up.’” Toronto Star (Canada), 16 May 2018. EBSCOhost, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A538860478/STND?u=lbcc&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=adebd1ab. Accessed 20 May 2024.

Moore, Kevin C. “‘BlacKkKlansman’ Touches Raw Nerves of Race Politics.” Santa Barbara Independent, 14 Aug 2018, https://www.independent.com/2018/08/14/blackkklansman-touches-raw-nerves-race-politic. Accessed 22 May 2024.

Omerovic, Emina. “‘BlacKkKlansman’ Review: All Power To All The People.” UWIRE Text, 23 Sept. 2018, p. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A555341640/AONE?u=lbcc&sid=ebsco&xid=5997555a. Accessed 16 May 2024.

Wilkinson, Alissa. “Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman draws a ham-fisted line from white supremacy’s past to its present.” Vox, 9 Aug 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/5/15/17355432/blackkklansman-review-spike-lee-david-duke -charlottesville. Accessed 22 May 2024.


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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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