BlacKkKlansman is a powerful film that surveys race relations in America—but it starts in a curious place where Alec Baldwin speaks over news footage and movie clips about the white race’s rightful place over African Americans. Why is that? How does this opening scene inform how we should watch the rest of the film?
In my opinion, the rest of the film represents the struggle for white men to hold onto the power depicted in these old movies, and for black people push against that mentality and reshape America in their image. And the mise-en-scène of the film explores this struggle visually in many ways.
The Opening Scene
BlacKkKlansman starts with an epic shot from Gone with the Wind, in which injured and dead soldiers line the street in the wake of the Civil War.
After this, BlacKkKlansman then shows a man speaking to a camera, angry about Brown vs. The Board of Education and how it allows for black children to attend school with white children. In the background, a news clip of an Arkansas school where both white and black children are going to class.
This man believes the white race has Biblically earned the right to rule over all other races. He longs for the days when white people understood the black race’s place in society—back when they were depicted in films as ridiculous, as uncivil, as violent, as a threat to women and children. Birth of a Nation, famously known as the most racist film ever made, plays from a projector as the man speaks to the camera about the America he’d wish to live in.
Gone with the Wind is famous for many reasons, but in the last half century, it’s perhaps become most well-known for being a tad racist. Many people feel it nostalgizes the Lost Cause and white supremacism. Why does BlacKkKlansman, a film that predominately features black characters, open with clips from two movies that long for white power?
And with films and news clips juxtaposed with one another, what does it mean to have this man longing for white power over these images? This white man is at odds with the America he’d wish to live in and the America that exists. In the films, black people are held down and put in their place—in the news footage, black people are gaining their rightful spot in the education system.
With this in mind, let’s look at the rest of the film.
Between the World and Me
About 15 minutes into BlacKkKlansman, you’ll notice a distinct stylistic shift. What had up to that point been a fairly straightforward film suddenly employs an experimental shot during a speech from Kwame Ture, a civil rights leader speaking to black students at a Colorado university.
Shrouded in black, the students’ faces all look up as Kwame passionately roars, “Now tell me something. Is beauty defined by someone with a narrow nose? Thin lips? White skin? Hell no—because you ain’t got one of that. Our lips are thick! Our noses broad! Our hair is nappy! We are black, and we are beautiful! You see, we want to be so much like the white people who oppress us in this country. And because they hate us, and because we are ashamed of our African heritage, we then hate ourselves.”
As indicated by how director Spike Lee frames them in his shots, all of the black attendees are moved by Kwame’s passionate words—differently than the students in attendance. Instead of being surrounded by black, Ron is simply buried in the mass of people inspired by Kwame’s words.
Whenever a movie has a scene like this that greatly differs from what you’ve seen thus far, that should be an indication that something meaningful is being conveyed in that moment. So what do we see here? Kwame encourages the students to love their beautiful black bodies, to be comfortable in their skin, to not think less of themselves because of the oppression they’ve faced for so many years in America.
During that speech, the experimental shots remove the students from the live setting and transport them to an ethereal one that allows us to gaze upon their broad lips, their thick noses, their black skins. That shot selection stands out—that alerts ours brain that this scene is special and that we should be active viewers in this moment.
So what do we take away in this moment?
Here’s what I immediately thought of when I saw this scene: Between the World and Me.
If you’ve heard of Ta-Nehsis Coates, then you might know about the book that made him a prominent writer, Between the World and Me. In that book, he predominantly discusses how the black body has been abused forever in America—from slavery to lynchings to police brutality, black people have never been encouraged to be comfortable in their bodies.
“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes to his son in the book, meaning he knows the problem will continue to persist as the years drag on. To survive in this country, Coates says his son much learn to live within his God-given vessel.
And if that problem still exists today, then it definitely existed back in the 1970s when BlacKkKlansman took place.
With Coates’ words in mind, let’s review what we know up to that point in the movie: Ron is an undercover cop who is at this black rally to gather information about a possible attack from the Black Panthers. And he only got this job because he is the lone black police officer on the Colorado Springs force. This naturally carries a conflict: Ron is there to assist a predominantly white and prejudiced police force infiltrate a black group. Ron is both a member of oppressive and oppressed groups at the same time.
With all that considered, is it weird that Ron is framed differently than the other black people in attendance at the rally? While everyone else seems impassioned by Kwame’s words—yelling and screaming and inspired—Ron hesitatingly joins in, only to appear as though he belongs with this crowd.
If these experimental shots are an indication that Kwame’s speech is working and the students are comfortable in their bodies, then it would also indicate that Ron is not comfortable in his own skin.
And if that is indeed the case, how does this all relate back to the film’s opening scene?
The offensive depictions of black people in old silent movies shown at the beginning of BlacKkKlansman are greatly contrasted when Ron and the girl he’s fallen for, Patrice, talk about their favorite black film stars of the 1970s. Much like the white man stands in front of the silent films that depict an America he’d like to live in, Spike Lee inserts posters of films featuring powerful black characters into shots of Ron and Patrice walking together.
Patrice, the president of the black student union at Colorado College, is passionate about fighting for civil rights and spends much of her free time advocating for them. She is one of the people who was inspired by Kwame’s speech.
Ron, on the other hand, is lying to Patrice. He is an undercover cop who is pretending to be part of both the black power movement and the Ku Klux Klan. On the phone with the KKK, he disguises himself with a white voice; he uses his actual name instead of using a pseudonym; he literally signs his name over to the KKK and becomes an official member; he serves as the KKK president’s bodyguard.
Ron’s very identity exists in two realms at odds with one another—both externally and internally, Ron belongs to two factions.
As a result, we must contrast Ron with these black movie stars on the screen. Those men embody black power, while Ron must pretend to be part of the black movement while also aiding a racist organization. Ron pushes against the America depicted in the silent films, yet cannot fully exist in his black body—which is what Coates is scared will happen to his son in 2018. Thus, the rest of the film becomes Ron learning to love his black body in the way Kwame asked him to at that black rally.
And Ron finally learns to do that when Spike Lee recalls BlacKkKlansman’s opening scene during the third act.
Birth of a (New) Nation
We can see Ron’s struggle to be comfortable in his body extending to his police partner, Flip, as well. While not black, Flip is Jewish and also an “enemy” of the KKK. So while Ron only has to use his voice to be “white,” Flip must actually attend KKK meetings and become part of their group.
Based on how Spike Lee frequently frames Flip on shots, the director seems to be conscious of how this sort of prejudice not only holds black people down, but even makes other minorities feel out of place amongst a white group that feels it is obligated power.
That tension reaches its peak when both Flip and Ron attend a KKK meeting. Flip is there undercover as Ron, and Ron is there as a member of the police force—both versions of Ron exist in the same room, visually depicting a man who cannot fully exist in his black body.
Spike Lee builds on this tension when the KKK retreats to another room to watch Birth of a Nation. As Flip hoots and hollers with the KKK during the film, we see Ron framed in the background, watching the film from a window. Because Flip is acting as Ron, in this moment, Ron both roots for the white man and is subjugated by the white man at the same time.
The first time we saw Birth of a Nation used in BlacKkKlansman, we only had the white man’s point of view. But during the scene with Ron, we have new perspective. The film has depicted a man whose identity has been split in two, a man who is not comfortable in his black body, a man who does not fully embody the men shown on the blaxploitation posters, a man that Patrice cannot have in her life. While Birth of a Nation was presented triumphantly at the beginning of BlacKkKlansman, you can feel the ugly weight of the silent film here. Birth of a Nation isn’t just some movie that was made 50 years ago—it continues to be a beacon of hope for the racists that exist today. Racism is cyclical and must always be fought against. Birth of a Nation may be an old, outdated film, but its power will endure for the KKK—that means we’ll always need movies like BlacKkKlansman to combat it.
So while Ron takes down this chapter of the KKK and his investigation ends, the use of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind at the beginning of the film shows that the fight still isn’t over. At the end of the film, Ron and Patrice get a knock at their door. Guns drawn, they open it, only to find nobody there. But when they look out the window, a giant cross burns in the distance. Even though this one battle has been won, the war rages on, and there will always be people who attempt to make the Rons and the Patrices of the world feel uncomfortable in their black skins.
It’s no surprise, then, that Spike Lee concludes the film with present-day footage that proves racism still persists. At the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, we see people yelling at one another, punching and kicking one another, driving cars through crowds of people—and, of course, our president defending the white nationalists, saying there are “fine people” on both sides. In a meta move that mimics the opening scene, Spike Lee juxtaposes this real-life footage with the very film he’s made.
Movies are a powerful force—they are often depictions of the world we’d like to live in. They serve as commentary on our surroundings, attempting to expose truths that aren’t always immediately evident. I think this ending is Spike Lee acknowledging that: Ron’s story isn’t just entertainment—it’s a reminder that we always have to keep fighting. So in order to reshape America, we need to keep telling these stories and learn from them.
It then makes sense that the final shot of the film is the American flag changing colors, from red, white, and blue to black and white—depicting an America where blacks and whites coexist in harmony. The flag is upside down, likely signaling America is currently in limbo, on its way to finding a new identity.