Spike Lee, one of the most powerful and important filmmakers of the last 30 years who we collectively too often sleep on or overlook, is back this week with the new movie BlacKkKlansman. The movie is basically just what you might think it is based on the title, a story of a black member of the KKK…at least kind of.
Based on real events from the 1970s, John David Washington plays police officer Ron Stallworth. In the midst of the social turmoil of the time, Stallworth decides to infiltrate the KKK to determine how dangerous they are. He conducts most of his business over the phone but partners with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of the operation when things need to be handled in-person. They do so well they eventually cross paths with KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.
Ummm…wow. Stallworth is shown on the first poster standing there with one fist raised in a “black power” salute and the other holding a hair pick, all of which, when combined with the leather jacket he’s sporting, makes it clear the story takes place several decades in the past. The main thing is…he’s wearing the white hood of the Klan over his face, creating an incredible juxtaposition between the visual elements and setting up the nature and premise of the story. The edges of the photo shown have been artificially worn to give it a dated feel as well.
Driver and Washington stand on opposite sides of a white triangle, on which is the tagline “Infiltrate hate” and a reminder this is based on a true story. Of note here is the clear callout beneath the title that the movie comes “From producer Jordan Peele” to capitalize on his popularity.
One more had Washington standing within an American flag whose red and white stripes had been converted to black and white, those stripes going both behind and in front of him to illustrate how woven he and others are into the American experience. This one promises the movie is “Based on a crazy, outrageous, incredibly true story.”
I’m just not sure how to adequately explain how the first trailer opens with Stallworth, recently added to the police force, adopting a very white-sounding voice to call and get in the good graces of David Duke. Stallworth is out to infiltrate the KKK and can handle part of that, but needs “the right white man” to actually play the part in person, which means recruiting Zimmerman, who’s a bit skeptical. The execution of the plan coincides with the civil rights movement and other societal upheavals, with the reluctant partners out to take down those looking to keep any non-white people in their place.
It’s…it’s really funny. What’s shown here, with the music and everything, plays fast and loose and breezy, showing how the two partners make their plan come to fruition, albeit for different reasons. This is the kind of filmmaking we haven’t seen from Lee in a number of years and both Washington and Driver look pitch perfect.
Online and Social
Focus Features’ website for the movie isn’t exactly chock-full of information, but the basics are all covered. The site uses the studio’s standard layout, with the trailer playing as the site opens and other content available further down the page. So as you scroll down you can see an “About” section and then, available by clicking on the various pictures on the page, read bios and other facts about the cast and crew. Over on the right there are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I’ve seen a few online ads that have used the film’s key art and some social posts using the trailer, but that’s it. There no TV spots I’ve been able to find.
Media and Publicity
Aside from the…unconventional and eyebrow-raising title, the first real bit of news about the movie came when it was announced as one of those screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Footage was shown off by Lee at CinemaCon, with the tone of what was seen taking a good amount of the press and other attendees by surprise. The first still was released shortly after that. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio.
A feature profile of Lee appeared just before the Cannes debut that allowed him to talk about making the movie, what he wants to convey through it, his thoughts on the current president and lots more that show he hasn’t missed a step over the years. He talked again to Vanity Fair after that screening, which was very well-received and generated a ton of great word-of-mouth. It also included comments from Lee, unsurprisingly, about the current U.S. political climate and administration. He reiterated those views in subsequent interviews like this before the movie was ultimately given the festival’s Grand Prix award, significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was one of the few entries in the actual competition this year from a U.S. filmmaker.
The movie was one of two at Cannes featuring Topher Grace, resulting in a narrative emerging about how this was a kind of comeback for the actor and how this was part of a mission to reinvent his career. He talked more about why he opted to take on such a controversial role while Washington was also profiled in a feature where he talked about carving out a career independent of his father’s and more.
At some point it was noticed the movie was one of several either primed for release or in production that focused on the KKK being the adversary in some manner.
In late July a major press push happened that included Lee talking about the tone of the movie and how he sees himself in the scope of film history, how he became involved with the project and how his family influenced his filmmaking, why he included recent news footage as well as more on the Trump presidency and the current state of racism in America. That Rolling Stone story also revealed Lee had secured an unreleased Prince song to use during the end credits, something he explained more in-depth here. Co-writer Kevin Willmott also talked about many of the same themes mentioned above.
While there wasn’t much on the paid front, there was a significant press push in the final week before release. Washington appeared on “Access Hollywood,” while Grace appeared on “The Today Show,” as did both Lee and Washington. Meanwhile, Lee showed up on “NBC Nightly News” and elsewhere. All those and others created an exclusive featurette for Regal Cinemas.
The real Stallworth was interviewed as well, mentioning how he’d spoken to Duke recently and how the Trump-supporting racist was “concerned” he may not come off well in the movie, something that defies parody.
Well…What to say about that. Spike Lee has made a movie that:
- Is about black law enforcement standing up for an underrepresented culture and taking on established powers that have ignored the plight of their community for too long.
- Is about how white supremacist neo-nazis are unquestionably the bad guy, someone to be targeted for investigation and taken down because of their hate speech.
And all of that and more is in a campaign that makes the story seem not only timely but funny. It’s hard to think of a story that’s more relevant, especially since its release is timed to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.