Teach Your Children Well (A Review of “BlacKkKlansman”)

From the first scene of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” I realized that I should have defined a few things for the kids first. I should have told them about “Gone With the Wind” and defined terms like “segregation” and “miscegenation.” But oh, well, we would discuss them later.

My kids are 10 and 12. We discuss everything, from sex to how some people are genuinely crazy and do horrifying things. They’ve seen both “Deadpool” movies because they’ve heard the word “fuck” many times, and they recognize cartoon violence the same way I understood Wile E. Coyote.

I give my kids credit for being able to understand certain concepts, at least in a general way, if not in all of the shades of gray that apply to life. This is why we listened to an audio book this summer that was written by a man who survived Auschwitz when he was just a kid. In the age of rising authoritarians, they are not too young to learn about genocide and the Holocaust — the author of the book we read was younger than my ten year old when he was freed.

I was glad of the context when we went to the theater yesterday, as 70s era Nazi equivalents spouted their hate in ways that felt like a slap to the head. We had to drive into Portland to see the film, as our bedroom community is apparently too white to dedicate a screen to it.

“BlacKkKlansman” is deliberately plotted and intense. It’s also funny, in sort of unfunny ways. Dialogue that (no doubt deliberately) foreshadowed the rise of Trump brought snickers from the mixed, but mostly white, audience. For example, our hero, Ron Stallworth says in the film that there’s “no way” America would ever elect a man like David Duke president. If only.

Adam Driver, who plays Ron’s white partner, Philip Zimmerman, faces genuine jeopardy from the unhinged Klansman Felix, whose paranoia may exceed even Trump’s. Convinced he’s a Jew (and he is), Felix just won’t let it go, even threatening to give him a lie-detector test at gunpoint. Philip’s handling of the threat, and what Ron does next, takes serious cajones.

Catharsis comes with the ultimate shaming of David Duke, of letting him know he’s been had — by a black man. But all is not well that ends well, and we are left to wonder just who ordered the investigation of the Klan to end, and why, as we become witness to a cross burning that melds into footage of the Charlottesville march and protest in August, 2017. This footage, with an homage to Heather Heyer, and the final screen of the American flag in its distress position, is incredibly powerful and moving.

And then, the questions. My children no longer ask why some people choose to live in hate. They know it’s unanswerable. Why does the sun rise? Because it does. But they did ask about the robes — what was their purpose? Why did they burn crosses? I told them that they wanted to scare people and remain anonymous. High-ranking men often hide behind those masks: bankers, business owners, politicians, and policemen. We discussed the cult-like, religious quality of their ceremonies. We noted the absence of women from the inner circle of men.

My son declared “BlacKkKlansman” to be the best Civil Rights film he’s ever seen. He’ll be seeing more of them. They both will. Because the way that you fight hate is with empathy, and that is something that we must nurture, like a plant. It doesn’t happen automatically. We have to encourage it and continually push our children to consider the world from other perspectives. We have to show them that we care, so that they will learn to care. It isn’t rocket science, but you can’t do it if your nose is stuck in your phone all the time. Talk to your kids, engage them, and yes, take them to see movies like “BlacKkKlansmen” when they’re old enough. The world isn’t Walt Disney. It’s a lie to tell them it is.

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.

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