Yesterday, when I read that Omarosa Manigault Newman, the “Apprentice”-diva-turned-White-House-crony-turned-seduced-and-abandoned-Trump-heretic, claims to have knowledge of a tape from the set of “The Apprentice” in which her former snake-oil mentor is heard uttering a racial slur, my first thought was, “Good! Let’s hear the tape. It’s time that Donald Trump’s racism was dragged, forever, out of the dog-whistle zone.” But my second thought was, “God forbid, I wonder if a tape like that might actually help him.” I don’t seriously believe that. Yet the fact that one could even have that flashing thought is a sign of how quickly this country is moving in a toxically perilous direction.
Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is the movie that puts the new transformation of America, in all its ugliness, hate, and — yes — power, onto the big screen. At one point, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American rookie undercover cop in Colorado Springs in the late ’70s, is telling a fellow officer how he was able to make a connection over the phone to David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The officer replies by explaining that Duke is changing the face of the KKK. He now calls himself the National Director (it sounds more presentable, with less of a ring of occult torturer, than Grand Wizard), and his plan is to make himself over into a respectable politician — to take the politics of racial hatred mainstream, a movement that could theoretically result in the rise of new kind of president. Ron, as skeptical as he is solidly middle class, sets him straight. “America,” he declares, “would never elect somebody like David Duke president of the United States.”
It’s a line that cues us to laugh. But when he said it during the packed afternoon show of “BlacKkKlansman” that I attended, it was striking to hear the chortles trail off into an ominous murmur. The whole exchange is a trifle gimmicky; that line about the presidency is one of those 20-20-hindsight screenwriter’s gambits designed to get a rise out of you. In this case, though, the rise happens because the parallel it forces us to confront is so startling. Does Donald Trump = David Duke? One of the messages of “BlacKkKlansman” is that maybe he does. And that’s not a screenwriter’s invention. That’s a fearless filmmaker slicing open the skin of America in 2018 to reveal which way our blood is flowing.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on a true story that took place in 1978 and 1979, when “All in the Family,” blaxploitation films, and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” still lingered in the atmosphere, even as the antic communality of the ’70s was crumbling into something colder. Yet make no mistake: “BlacKkKlansman” is every inch a movie about what’s happening to our society today. That’s why it can get away with its slightly goofy mistaken-identity police plot, and with the fake-looking wig that John David Washington wears (why on earth did Lee approve a ‘fro that sits on his hero’s head like a Frisbee?).
Twenty years ago, or even 10 (or five), if somebody had made a period drama about a cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, we could have talked about the racial hatred he was out to uncover as an American virus, a disease that won’t die; we could have talked about the importance of never pretending that it’s gone away. Yet we could still have claimed that “white supremacy,” as an organized movement, was an underground force in America — a movement on the hate-fueled fringes.
But when you watch “BlacKkKlansman,” with its lacerating scenes of KKK house-party meetings led by Middle American rubes in Colorado Springs, it’s with a disturbing awareness that the thoughts, the feelings, and the words being expressed have been infused, over the last few years, with a newly aggressive and open presence. It’s there on social media, and in the rise of the alt-right as a “legitimate” participant in the national discourse. It’s there in the acts of domestic terrorism that the whole word witnessed at Charlottesville. And, most significantly, it’s there in the devout refusal of the President of the United States to distance himself from those forces and to declare them the intolerable menace they are.
Trump, of course, knows the game he’s playing. The refusal to condemn, which he repeated at his recent press conference keyed to the anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, equals a wink of endorsement. It’s that simple. Anyone who now denies that we have David Duke in the White House is either lying, not seeing reality, or not minding it.
The extraordinary hook of “BlacKkKlansman” relates to Spike Lee’s ironic empathy as a filmmaker. It emerges from the way that Lee — how can I put this? — wants us to feel the humanity of these people. I don’t mean the humanity of their racial views; those are bereft of humanity. But the very fact that they’re human beings doing something that they believe in. Lee wants to know why, and he wants the audience to know why; he has never lost the driving passion of a true film artist, which is curiosity. Lee has engineered “BlacKkKlansman” to be an undercover police-procedural drama that’s less about the crimes of its villains than about their ways, manners, and personalities. The movie is about getting close enough to people who say the N-word to experience the essence of who they are. It is even about getting close to that word.
The word, in recent years, has become more taboo than ever, and that’s part of the power of hearing it in “BlacKkKlansman.” The film’s most electrifying scenes are those in which Ron Stallworth’s fellow cop, Flip Zimmerman (Andrew Driver), becomes his partner on the case by infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Klan. He hangs out with them during their living-room confabs (which are like Rotary Club meetings with Confederate flags), cooing over their firearms, becoming an eager participant in their conversations about how to squelch the rise of black people in America and — their paranoid catechism — the conspiracy of Jews that’s helped to make it possible. To fit in, Driver’s character, who is himself Jewish, can’t just mouth the hate. He’s got to say it like he means it. That draws the audience into a creepy intimacy with those thoughts.
The N-word becomes a piece of horrific music in “BlacKkKlansman.” It is used so relentlessly that the audience begins to hear it not just as the most hideous and violent epithet in the American language but as the cornerstone of a belief system. It trivializes nothing to say that the film’s key Klan members, like the mild-on-the-surface Walter (Ryan Eggold) or the seething redneck Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), are men living inside a comic book of hate. The theme of “BlacKkKlansman” is that white supremacy is a cult: a religion of intolerance you can’t argue with.
More and more people are starting to say that Donald Trump’s presidency is a cult. That’s what his famous declaration about what would happen if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone — that none of his voters would abandon him! — is really about. It’s about the level of loyalty that cult leaders, rather than mere politicians, inspire. The fascist movements of the 20th century were also cults, led by cult leaders: Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot. The point isn’t that Trump is their equivalent, but that the cult dimension of support for him is what is becoming so dangerous. “BlacKkKlansman” is the movie of the moment because it dramatizes, in an electrifying way, the link between the cult of white supremacy and the cult of the White House. It’s about how our nation has come to have a heart so dark that it needs deprogramming.