Hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists march under the cover of night, chanting slogans like “You will not replace us.” It is not a scene from “Mississippi Burning,” or archival footage of the Ku Klux Klan. It is Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va., where a group of “alt-right” protesters descended on the University of Virginia campus.
A part of the Unite the Right rally, the two days of protests would culminate in the death of Heather Heyer, a counter protester who was run over by a self-identified white supremacist. It seems like the stuff of fiction, or some alternate reality, especially magnified in footage that serves as the sobering capstone to Spike Lee’s latest movie “BlacKkKlansman.”
Released Aug. 10, one day before the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally and subsequent attacks, and now playing in theaters across Charleston, the film is set in the early 1970s and based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington). Stallworth is appointed the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department. There, amid the backdrop of the ongoing civil rights movement, he is met with racism and open hostility within the department. Undaunted, Stallworth embarks on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan after seeing an advertisement for recruits.
"BlackkKlansman" hits close to home in South Carolina, where a self-identified white supremacist carried out a deadly attack at Emanuel AME Church, where a white police officer shot an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, in a case that received national attention, and where, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2017 report “Year in Hate and Extremism,” there was an uptick in the number of hate groups recorded across the state.
In the film, Stallworth builds a relationship over the phone with the leadership of the Klan. His colleague Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, poses as Stallworth in face-to-face meetings with organization members. What ensues is an at times comic and always relevant to the ongoing effort to “mainstream” white supremacy. It’s a process, Lee suggests with his concluding footage, that has culminated in the rise of the “alt-right” and the election of Donald Trump, widely criticized for his comment about the “display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides” at Charlottesville.
A central figure in the film is David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Klan, played by Topher Grace of “That '70s Show.” Duke is leading a campaign to sanitize the Klan’s image and rhetoric in an effort to widen the organization's base of supporters. In the course of his investigation, Stallworth comes into contact with Felix Kendrickson played to the hilt by Jasper Paakkonen, who in addition to nearly exposing Stallworth, leads a plot to terrorize Colorado College’s black student union.
The target of the plot and president of the black student union, Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier, also happens to be Stallworth’s love interest. Their relationship marks an important conflict in the film. Stallworth meets Dumas on his first assignment undercover at a black power rally, before embarking on his Klan investigation. It’s a plot point that puts Stallworth at odds with a movement that has identified state violence and the police (or “pigs” as Patrice would say) as instruments of oppression. This, too, references contemporary headlines.
Charleston audiences can see "BlacKkKlansman" at the Terrace Theater, Cinebarre Mt. Pleasant Stadium 11, Southeast Cinemas-Citadel Mall IMAX 16 and Regal Charles Towne Square Stadium 18.