Sadly, we live in a divided nation.

Despite claiming to live the common values that framed our country, we let ourselves, with each passing year, become more rooted in the echo chambers we unfortunately label as red and blue, conservative and liberal, white and black. Or brown. Or anything and anyone some consider different.

And, conveniently, perhaps, we may consider this divide a new phenomena; that, in the “good old days,” we were a more united as a nation, one that, despite the differences in people, found common ground in the values that initially ignited our nation’s dream.

Spike Lee has a different view.

This outrageous, courageous filmmaker hits us between the eyes with his brilliant, unforgettable and horrifying take on racism, BlacKkKlansman.

Now, this brief description may indicate that Lee has created a searing drama on a topic that demands exploration. But Lee is too savvy for that. Instead of delivering a sermon, he gives us a fairy tale. Rather than offer a lecture, he lets us discover the moral through a series of images, some from the movies, others from recent headlines. And, while he makes us think, he prompts us to chuckle. BlacKkKlansman is not only the most memorable movie of the year so far, it’s also the most entertaining as this creative craftsman frames his story of truth in a tale of the absurd.

Based on actual incidents, BlacKkKlansman tells an amazing story of an African-American police officer who becomes a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He must bring real innovation to his pursuit, for obvious reasons, making shifts in his voice to be convincing as a white man on the telephone as he talks with Klan leaders (including David Duke) as he persuades a white colleague to play the role in person. Together they pull quite a con on Klan members, infiltrating the layers of hatred and bigotry as they reveal the divide the Klan promotes through a lens of divine guidance and entitlement.

The absurdity works because filmmaker Lee convinces us to believe it’s real. Much as Blake Edwards achieved in the transgender comedy Victor/Victoria in 1982, Lee makes us believe the illusion because his characters believe. And, because we believe the illusion, we can discover the truth it surrounds. A more serious approach might overwhelm with imagery of white hatred; Lee suggests what can happen because he examines the emotions that nurture such behavior. He gives us a modern-day horror film, set in the 1970s, that feels as current as the images we see today every time people choose to imagine that one race is superior to another.

In a striking, complex performance, filled with humor and humanity, John David Washington (yes, Denzel’s son) grounds the hero’s ambition with a strong dose of humility. Never do we feel this man is pushing a view for its own sake. He’s simply trying to do his job. Washington’s vocal command makes the illusion work, and he and Adam Driver, as his coworker, establish a rhythm of relationship that delights at every exchange.

I can’t get this movie out of my mind. Perhaps because it’s so good. Certainly because it feels so real. And, most importantly, because it is so necessary. We need movies like this. Especially today.

Film Nutritional Value: BlacKkKlansman

  • Content: High. As the film recreates turbulent moments in our history it reminds us that, unless we are careful, it could happen again and again.

  • Entertainment: High. The serious messages come to life as Spike Lee reimagines a moment of time we need to remember.

  • Message: High. Anyone who cares about a community, and the fairness that people share, should savor this picture of what can happen when people fear.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the relations between races is essential at any time, especially now.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Despite its “R” rating, you and your older children should share this film for the messages it so thoughtfully conveys.

BlacKkKlansman is rated R for “language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.” The film runs 2 hours, 15 minutes, and is showing in local theaters. For more about the movies, check out The Reel Dad online at 5 Popcorn Buckets. 

Detroit: A Needed Return to a Devastating Time

If we choose, we can learn from history. If we keep our minds and hearts open to what we explore, we can absorb the meaning of past events. These lessons will teach us what to avoid as we move forward. But we have to present to learn. And willing to change.

At any time, Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit — much as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman — would be a powerful reminder of the impact of hatred between races. Seen today, with all we experience in recent our world, its message could not be more significant. This detailed, heart-breaking recreation of the Detroit riots of 1967 reminds us what can happen when people only believe in what they fear. When we refuse to be accountable for the fragility of human life.

From its first moments — one evening as the riots begin — we know Detroit will be serious about its issues. As a director, Bigelow does not shoot violence scenes from an artistic view. Rather she restages what history teaches in painstaking detail for multiple cameras to capture. This approach puts us in the middle of horrifying events, surrounded by anger, unable to escape the intensity. We are there in Detroit in 1967. And we can’t get away.

Bigelow’s history lesson focuses on one turbulent event in the heat of that summer. As she so artfully accomplished with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the director visually establishes the context of conflict before developing her characters. By first establishing the background of racial tension she makes it easier to get to know the people affected. We meet three young black men who seek safety from the streets in a local motel only to find their illusions of security rudely interrupted by events they do not understand and cannot control. With the precision of a documentarian, Bigelow creates a thriller out of a story we know. With the creativity of an artist, she brings this moment alive by making us care for the individuals impacted by hatred. She does not simply show the blood that hatred can create. She articulates why it matters.

This is the director’s film. While her screenwriter, Mark Boal, may let the narrative slow in the film’s final third, and the film feels long, Bigelow never lets the tension ease. She is so committed to the material, and focused on the message, that she sacrifices obvious “movie moments” where she could show off her camera to tell a story she knows the camera can capture. And she is so well connected to her cast that we see what occurs through their eyes. As a security guard, John Boyega becomes the conscience of these events while Algee Smith shines as a singer who longs to find a way for his voice to be heard.  

We can learn from history. And we must. Movies — like Detroit, like BlacKkKlansman, help when they explore issues or moments with might otherwise forget. Detroit may not be an easy film to watch but it’s an essential film to experience. Especially now. It opens our eyes to what we may not see and fills our hearts with what we should feel. Revisiting the summer of 1967, when too many made choices influenced by violence, brings us home to how the negative can forever destroy. At any time.