BlacKkKlansman and the Hollywood “True Story”

Be aware: You should probably watch BlacKkKlansman before reading this…

My initial viewing of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was taken at face value. “If the movie is saying it’s true, then it’s probably mostly true,” my stupid brain told me for the five hundredth time I’ve seen the title card: “Based on a True Story.” Of course, films always embellish the truth, changing aspects of history for the sake of theme or plot, and BlacKkKlansman changes a lot, all the while presenting itself as “some fo real, fo real shit”.

In the past, that initial face-value assessment of a film was all you had. Unless you were educated in the subject at hand or willing to put in some serious time, it was difficult to confront the legitimacy of these “true” stories. Today, it’s hard to resist the temptation to jump on Google or Wikipedia immediately after the credits roll.

If a film is going to explore a historical topic — especially a more recent one — every twist of the truth is a chance for a positive opinion to sour in retrospect. In the case of BlacKkKlansman, my post-credits examination turned a film I mostly adored into a muddled mess.

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For example, the film’s contrived bombing climax read to me, on first blush, as a result of the weirdness of reality. I excused plot points I found to be very silly because I assumed that they were based on true events. Life is not always as well-written as the films we love, after all. Yet the truth of BlacKkKlansman is that there was no climactic moment for Ron Stallworth’s undercover infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. The operation was dismantled well before anything that exciting occurred.

This is just a small example in a much deeper rabbit hole brought to my attention from an essay by Boots Riley, writer and director of Sorry to Bother You. Here it is, if you haven’t seen it:

Riley’s essay is a lot to unpack, and throws many of the film’s goals into question. His condemnation of Ron Stallworth as a heroic figure is potent. Riley effectively argues that the changes made to the true story are all in service of a problematic message — that institutions like the police should not bear as much of the blame for racial violence as they do.

I already thought that the final sequence of news footage from last year’s Unite the Right rally and subsequent murder of Heather Heyer was in poor taste. Lee was preaching to the choir with that last minute addition, as if it wasn’t already blatantly obvious that the film was drawing parallels with current events. The fact that the footage he chose focused entirely on protestors on both sides while ignoring the role police played only strengthens Riley’s critique.

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I originally came away from BlacKkKlansman feeling like I’d watched a really cool and interesting piece of history edited by a pop artist with an incredibly strong voice. From its sudden dips into film history, to the strange editing choices in scenes like Kwame Ture’s speech, BlacKkKlansman felt messy, energetic, and alive. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible performances by the entire cast. I came out of the theater feeling like I’d gotten a breath of fresh air from a sea of polished, focus-tested summer blockbusters.

And yet, here we are with the reality, the fabrications, and of course, Boots Riley’s pointed critique. No one can take away how I felt walking out of the theater, or the discussions that came after. Nor can I take issue with the time I spent reading and learning about Ron Stallworth, COINTELPRO, and other related events. BlacKkKlansman got me thinking, even if it was ultimately against its best interests.

In a weird way, maybe that means this movie is still great in the end, problems and all.

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