The Power Of BlacKkKlansman Is In Black Beauty

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Just when I thought I couldn’t tolerate any more white supremacy, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman came along and changed my mind. The legendary director’s latest “joint” is a biopic about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who was not only the first Black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department but also managed to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be white over the phone. This historical exploration of one Black man’s interaction with white supremacy arrives on the heels of the 2016 resurgence of white nationalism after Trump’s election.
David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, has also resurfaced as a leader for delusional white people who think that they’re at risk of being overthrown in America, is also portrayed in BlacKkKlansman by Topher Grace. The near-comical absurdity of white nationalist principles isn’t lost on me, and it wasn’t lost on Lee, either, when he made the film. BlacKkKlansman is timely — a fact Lee goes out of his way to make apparent with a montage of footage from white nationalists rallies, including the incident that led to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. The film manages to make violent white extremists the butt of the joke. It’s a refreshing angle on such a somber subject. However, what was most impactful for me was something a bit more surface level: Black beauty.
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BlacKkKlansman is set in the late 1970s, an era in American history where Black people had finally achieved civil rights, but anti-Black violence was still a threat. The Black Power movement offered up radical leaders and ideologies in support of African-Americans educating, sustaining, defending, and affirming themselves. To the latter point, “Black is beautiful” became one of the many rallying calls of the movement. It was a cultural clapback to the idea that African features, like dark skin, nappy hair, and wider noses, were inherently ugly. Believing in the aesthetic value of Blackness was just one of the many means of resisting racism and anti-Blackness. Lee latched onto this at several key moments in BlacKkKlansman that produced dazzling results.
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In an early scene, Officer Stallworth is sent to surveil a talk being hosted by the University of Colorado’s Black Student Union where Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) would be speaking. As Kwame addresses the room, close-up shots of their faces take over the screen. Their skin, smooth and melanated, almost glows against the blacked out backdrop. At one point during the scene, Kwame has the room chant: "Black is beautiful." And after BSU president Patrice (Laura Harrier) is accosted by the police, she decides that she’d like to spend the rest of the night dancing with her peers and Stallworth in a scene that was extended to give fantastical music video vibes. Soft and choreographed, Black bodies moving in unison had a soothing effect. If you ever questioned the capacity of Black people to be muses, Lee made a convincing case with his latest film.
That Black people are beautiful may seem superficial, but it isn’t necessarily apolitical. It’s still a form of resistance to a system that will use any excuse to demonize Black people. The brilliance of BlacKkKlansman is that Lee was able to convey this cinematically. Building up to the final action sequence of the film, shots of KKK member initiation were intercut with those of a civil rights elder telling the story of his lynched friends to a group of Black students. The juxtaposition of warmth in the Black house and cold sterility during the initiation was sharp, and it visually represented how Black bodies, in all of their beauty can shine through.
Despite valid critiques of Lee and his style of storytelling and filmmaking — he desperately wants to be a cool uncle, his portrayal of women is sometimes questionable, and subtle messaging is not his strong suit — his love for Black people has always been on display. BlacKkKlansman was a stunning example.
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