Review: Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' is daring and essential

Topher Grace plays Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in  in a scene from "BlacKkKlansman."

Director Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is in its final showings in Waco — two Wednesday night, one Thursday afternoon — after a four-week run in Waco, longer than I thought it’d do in Waco.

Part of that is due to Lee’s forceful style when it comes to films that deal with racial issues. Part is that Waco — specifically, the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington that became known as the “Waco Horror” — is a major plot point.

Lee’s movie is based on the true story of black detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel Washington’s son) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who infiltrates a local Klan group in 1979 and helped break it up. Lee, the director behind one of the great American films on race, 1989’s “Do The Right Thing,” isn’t content with leaving Stallworth’s story in the 1970s and the power of “BlacKkKlansman” comes in how he ties that story to an all-too-uncomfortable present.

The Waco moment comes about two-thirds of the way through the movie, when Lee crosscuts a Ku Klux Klan induction ceremony, which features a screening of the 1915 Klan-glorifying “Birth of a Nation,” with an older black man Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounting to a group of shocked college students the details of the Waco Horror, viewed by thousands of Waco and McLennan County citizens.

When I saw the film, I feared Lee might go overboard with the Waco lynching. He didn’t, outside of the creation of a fictional Turner as a childhood friend of Washington, who witnessed the public torture of Washington. (I haven’t seen any historical account of the Waco Horror that includes testimony from any family or friend of the 17-year-old farmhand who confessed to the murder of Robinson wife and mother Lucy Fryer, but there may have been one.)

Turner’s in-film account sticks to what we know of that event: the mob that seized Washington from the courthouse and dragged him to a public burning and hanging before a crowd of thousands; the mutilation of his body and distribution of burnt fingers as souvenirs; the pictures that Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve (mentioned here in a recent Trib story) took and later sold as postcards.

The sickening account of city residents watching a man’s torture and death for entertainment 102 years ago was juxtaposed in “BlacKkKlansman” with a more contemporary audience of Klansmen and their wives cheering the white terrorism of “Birth of a Nation” and pledging allegiance to white supremacy.

I imagined the reaction of other Waco residents at the use of the Waco Horror: “Here we go again, dragging Waco through the mud again for something that was in the past,” the common response to perennially recycling accounts of the Branch Davidian raid/siege/fire and the Twin Peaks biker shootout.

1915 Waco is not 2018 Waco and I think we tend to think of the Klan these days much as the 1970s chapter that Stallworth and his colleagues are tracking: a small bunch of losers, banding together with more motivations than pure racism.

Lee, however, is careful with his film’s dialogue and characters to link his 1970s story to today. One of Stallworth’s fellow cops is an out-and-out racist. Others are lukewarm in their pursuit of racial injustice. Stallworth frequently finds his motives second-guessed because of his race. Tellingly, Lee also creates a Klan wife who’s fully committed to the cause — a female component to the racist Klan that’s rarely discussed.

It’s comfortable to consider the Klan today as isolated and largely impotent when it comes to implementing its vision — white blue-collar losers then, white blue-collar losers now — then Lee slams into contemporary footage of the white supremacists rallying at Charlottesville, Virginia, last year with a man deliberately driving into counterprotesters, killing one and injuring several.

That’s when the memory of the Waco Horror starts to resonate. Washington’s lynching was a horror not solely because of the torture — hundreds of recorded lynchings involved torture of the victims — but the fact that thousands witnessed it and gave tacit approval.

The popularity of the overtly racist “Birth of a Nation,” which enjoyed extended runs in Waco after its release in 1915, showed tacit approval from millions of ticket buyers, an approval one could argue tracked the rebirth of the Klan in the 1920s.

Then I found myself wondering if one of my favorite novels and movies, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” carries its own distortion, not in approving racism, but diluting it. In Harper Lee’s story, small-town attorney Atticus Finch bravely defends a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of attacking and raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama.

Finch is a model of integrity and character, someone quietly brave and worth emulating, but there are few black characters with agency in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The most virulent racism, expressed in the character of Robert Ewell, has a strong class bent — white trash, some would say — which somewhat absolves the community and legal system of its embedded prejudice. The attempted lynching of Robinson in jail melts away when Finch’s daughter Scout innocently calls out one of the mob leaders, who leaves in shame. Part of the story’s tragedy comes when Robinson, found guilty by a white jury, doesn’t wait for an appeal but is shot and killed while trying to escape.

Today, I wonder if we would hear that phrase as killed while “trying to escape.”

There also was no real-world Scout Finch around to help Jesse Washington, who was lynched not at night, but in broad daylight and with the approval of thousands.

Lee and “BlacKkKlansman” remind us that limiting our perception of racism to its most visible, toxic expressions blind society — OK, white society — to the undercurrents that continue to feed such prejudice and hatred.

Here we go again, Waco?

In light of Charlottesville and its aftermath, it’s still a lesson yet to be learned.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor