Dr. Nancy West, a longtime cinema member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, writes about Ragtag films for our website.
The final act of BlacKkKlansman is so frenetic that it’s entirely possible to miss what seems to be the significance of one particular scene. It’s the scene where Ku Klux Klan members burn a cross just outside the home of Ron Stallworth, the African-American cop who infiltrates the Klan over the phone, using a fellow white officer (Flip Zimmerman) as his stand-in at in-person meetings.
The scene comes very late in the movie, just after Stallworth and his girlfriend, Patrice, a college activist styled on Angela Davis, have a conversation about the police. She tells him she can’t continue seeing him because of her absolute disgust and distrust of cops. “They’re pigs, all of them,” she declares flatly. In response, Stallworth argues that having an integrated law force is not just a matter of symbolic importance but is vital to the government’s ability to do its job. We agree with him in large part because he has just proven his point; in collaboration with his fellow white officers, particularly Zimmerman, Stallworth has undone the KKK’s plan to bomb a group of black protestors.
In a film that has the deliberate feel of a tall tale, goofy and cartoonish at times, Lee portrays Stallworth and Zimmerman’s relationship with a quiet and attentive realism. Zimmerman comes to understand, as a Jewish American, that he has “skin in the game,” too, to use Stallworth’s words. “I never used to think about being Jewish,” Zimmerman says in one of the film’s best-scripted moments. “Now I think about it all the time.” And from that point on, Zimmerman seems to become a better man, no longer guilty of moral evasion, making his way toward a deeper life and awareness.
But the cross-burning scene utterly undoes that narrative. Look carefully: as the camera surveys the dozen or so Klansmen standing there, it keeps returning to one figure in particular, drawing attention to his unusually tall stature, then moving in closer to circle around his hood. Using a slightly low angle shot, it shows us a chin and beard that unmistakably resemble Zimmerman’s.
If this is right, and I don’t see how it can’t be, Lee’s intent is to undercut the entire narrative of the film, as if to say “You didn’t really think it would be this easy, did you?” It makes Zimmerman, the most carefully drawn character in the film, a pig of the worst kind. And it suggests, finally, that no white person can be trusted. Patrice is right; the only solution forward is black militant activism.
This is a profoundly disturbing and dangerous message to be sending at this particular moment in American history. But however much I may disagree with it, my complaint is not with the message. Rather, it’s with Lee’s decision to send it so obliquely: as a trick, a game, a series of shots whose meaning we may grasp if we’re clever and attentive enough. It’s a joke meant to be an indictment, I suppose, of our liberal complacency—of thinking, foolishly, that forces like the Klan can be taken down through enough good will, awareness, and combined effort. But like all jokes, it creates an audience of insiders and outsiders: those who get the joke and those who don’t. It’s patronizing and juvenile and, from a director as prominent as Lee, deeply irresponsible.