Why 'BlacKkKlansman' Is The Movie of 2018

In decades past, when the world needed a mirror held up to itself, they went to the movies.

The 1970s brought classics such as The Conversation, All The President’s Men, and The Deer Hunter; and the 1980s Silkwood, Full Metal Jacket, and Reds. Whether through fact or fiction, they sought to narritivise the biggest issues of the time, including war, politics, and the environment with a blatantly political or social agenda.

In the past few decades, priorities of the companies that once made these movies have shifted  now, large sums of money and release spots are taken up by superhero and action movies, that while entertaining, don’t have the same objectives. Films like The Conversation and Reds are now fewer and further between, Spotlight in 2015 a rare exception.

Gene Hackman in the film The Conversation, 1974. (Image: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

To be outspoken is to sometimes eschew safety and assured profit in the favour of the importance of delivering the given message. That doesn’t mean controversy can’t pay – for example, in 2004 Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (which is getting a sequel this year) took an intensely critical look at then-US President George W. Bush, intensely praised and denounced to the tune of nearly $300 million. Controversy just becomes more risky.

It’s this scarcity of films that seek to drive the conversation in such an overt way that makes the arrival of a film like BlacKkKlansman (out this week) such an event. Directed by Spike Lee, the film tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (here played by John David Washington of the TV show Ballers, and a former NFL running back), a black detective in 1970s Colorado who infiltrated his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman. (Image: Focus Features)

Stallworth was the first black detective in his department, starting in the records room before moving up to the intelligence section as an undercover officer. Then, after seeing a newspaper advertisement asking for new Ku Klux Klan members, he calls and joins, sending his coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver of Girls and Star Wars) when face-to-face meetings are necessary. Stallworth even manages to get Ku Klux Klan national director David Duke (played here by Topher Grace of That 70s Show! and Spider Man 3) to expedite his membership request. Like much of the film, that scene thrives on the dark absurdity of the situation, the welcoming facade Duke and others like him use to hide in everyday life.

Director Spike Lee, Topher Grace and Adam Driver behind the scenes of BlacKkKlansman.  (Image: Focus Features)

Spike Lee also directed Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and more recently the incredibly underseen Chi-Raq, films that use his trademark black humour and biting insights to call audiences to action like few other filmmakers are able to do. His films are enraging, not letting the audience settle for an easy, comfortable night at the cinema. They're a welcome return to when filmmakers were able to freely let politics be shown on screen. Because the comparisons between the era BlacKkKlansman is set in and now don’t need to be drawn, a rebuttal to anyone still under a false pretense of progress being made – after all, we live in a country where news organisations provide platforms to far-right leaders, normalising viewpoints that seek to harm others.

It’s in these times we currently live in that films like these couldn’t be more necessary, and that the power of outspoken filmmakers like Spike Lee are reaffirmed. Like decades past, including the post-Vietnam War era of The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket, films such as these are widely seen around the world, seeking to drive the conversation.

Vincent d'Onofrio, Matthew Modine and R.Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, 1987. (Image: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

This is the power of telling stories, making bold mainstream movies and political filmmaking – they narrativise these conflicts, bring empathy and understanding to wildly different realities, and ask the viewer to hold their world to account. Their absence is felt, a hollowness in our mainstream cultural conversation.

If we don’t see these films, we’re poorer for it, deprived of something that can help us see the world in a new way.

For example, another film that has recently received considerable attention in America is Sorry to Bother You. Using absurdist humour and a dystopian reality to comment on race, the modern day workforce, and capitalism, it has garnered significant praise for being one of the most emblematic films for the current political climate.

“[Director Boots] Riley is trying to confront the very ways we communicate with each other, the sometimes-blurry boundaries between race and class, and the increasingly overt malevolence of free-market capitalism—all within the confines of a raucous comedy,” David Sims wrote for The Atlantic.

It sounds like an essential film to be seen around the world, full of truths about our reality. However, currently it doesn’t have an Australian release date. Hopefully it will – then, we’ll once again be able to sit in a cinema, see ourselves, and make a change.

Featured Image: Focus Features