Blackkklansman is a movie too heartfelt to be fun, even though it’s got a lot of funny moments. It’s bookended by reminders of what hate looks like; it opens with a montage of Alec Baldwin making a racist propaganda film in the 1960s, and closes with footage of the real events of the last couple of years, hammering home that this is something which hasn’t gone away, no matter how much it might feel like the characters in the main action have managed some kind of local victory against racism.
The movie’s set unobtrusively in the 70s, getting most of the setting and costumes right without making a big deal of it, but there’s a constant undercurrent of echoes of the present day, to the point where it almost wouldn’t be surprising to have someone look right out of the screen at the audience and say “Y’all know this isn’t really set in the past, don’t ya?"
The weird thing to me was not that it made racists ugly and repellent, but that it made everyone human. The racists were repellent, but for every one of them there was at least one moment where they did something that was just the stuff that people do, those moments of affection and trust which make the hatred even harder to understand. And strikingly, it doesn’t make white authority figures either fools or monsters. For the most part, the white cops who surround Ron Stallworth are a believable mixture of decency and obliviousness, people doing their best and finding it hard to understand how anyone wouldn’t. Adam Driver, who plays Stallworth’s white beard, pretty much steals the show whenever he gets a scene to himself, and the rest of the time is utterly convincing as a guy who just wants to get his job done and is being dragged against his will into giving a damn about it. John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, has an easier job as a smart guy who can’t believe how dumb the world is, but like his dad Denzel, he has an effortless charisma which lets him hold his own against the likes of Driver.
Lee also does something which needed to be done, and which I haven’t seen much before. In a movie which is largely about how terrible white people can be, he takes a long, long take in the middle to show the audience how beautiful black people can be. Stallworth goes to a Black Power meeting early in the movie, and the camera pans endlessly through the audience, catching their delighted reactions to the speaker. It’s black faces in a darkened room, and from a purely technical point of view, lighting it must have been the biggest challenge in the whole movie. Film is optimised for white faces, and exposing for black faces is always trickier than it should be. Lee’s work here is masterful, and does something for everyone who watches it.
Afterwards, I was mulling over the persistence of the Klan and the way in which bigots always seem to feel that they are being outnumbered and overborne by the people they used to oppress. And it struck me that in one way, bigots are right to feel outnumbered. At some level they know that while white people are the majority, assholes like them are a tiny minority. There are, indeed, far more black people in America than there are white people awful enough to say out loud the things which Klansmen say. The problem, of course, is that the white majority stays quiet in the face of the Klan. There’s nothing new about this. It’s a long time since Edmund Burke pointed out that for evil to prosper, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing. But perhaps people need to stop thinking of themselves as good people when they do nothing. Perhaps it’s time for them to accept that if they do nothing, they’re not good people at all.