Spike Lee used to make good films. Films like Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues and my favourite Do the Right Thing were angry, fresh, distinctive and exciting.
Arguably, his last critical and financial successes were in 2006. His incredible New Orleans documentary When the Levee Broke shone a harsh spotlight on the US authorities’ appalling response to Hurricane Katrina. The same year, Lee enjoyed mainstream success with the entertaining heist movie Inside Man, although I must admit that I found it relatively forgettable. More recently, however, his films have been disappointing.
So when I heard about the buzz around his latest film BlacKkKlansman I was wary, but intrigued.
Here’s the premise: In 1973 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black undercover cop in Colorado Springs, manages to infiltrate and join the Klu Klux Klan. His initial contact with the ‘Organisation’ is by telephone. Affecting a ‘white’ accent, he makes contact with the local order and progresses to gain the trust of the Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) himself, under the pretence of hastening his membership application. When he needs to make an appearance in person he recruits his white Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as a stand-in. Astoundingly, this is based on a true story.
BlacKkKlansman is entertaining and at times very funny. It makes the most of its absurd premise and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, particularly Washington’s phone calls.
Set in the 1970s, with that decade’s haircuts, clothes and music, it’s enjoyably cartoonish. The local Klan members are clearly hicks: idiot rednecks, deluded hangers-on and pantomime psychos. Although they clearly present a real danger and their proudly outspoken, paranoid racism is hateful, Lee’s decision to caricature them means that the film’s tone doesn’t get too dark and gritty, at least for the bulk of the running time.
This is a caper movie, and the police are similarly loosely sketched. The tough skeptical chief, the racist bully cop, and a bunch of enthusiastic, loyal colleagues at the station. This and the ludicrous situation lends a lot of the film a feelgood atmosphere.
The romance between cop Stallworth and student black activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) is warm and engaging, and gives an opportunity to explore Stallworth’s confusion over his identity and black identity in general: he’s a cop and part of the establishment, but he’s also inspired by the black power movement. A major theme of the film is one of mixed identities, most obviously in the main premise of a black man pretending to be a white racist, but in smaller details as well such as Stallworth’s voice ‘code-switching’ where he claims he can equally speak “American and jive”, a useful skill when duping the Klan.
Similarly, in perhaps the film’s most affecting moment, Driver’s white cop Zimmerman confesses that his Jewish background always seemed distant and irrelevant until Stallworth’s and the KKK’s anti-semitism compelled Zimmerman to contemplate his own personal identity.
BlacKkKlansman also has something to say about the depiction of black people in Hollywood. The film often feels like an affectionate parody of the blaxploitation movies of the seventies, referencing Shaft and other genre films. But it goes further than that. It opens with an epic Civil War sequence from Gone with the Wind showing the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta and a proud confederate flag. Later, Gone with the Wind is also referenced in a discussion about the subservient role of ‘Mammy’.
More prominently, there’s an uncomfortable sequence when the Klan members watch a screening of D. W. Griffiths’s The Birth of a Nation, cheering on the KKK and the violence against blacks. Lee has been fascinated by that film for decades. When he was a student, it was taught as historically important for its innovations in film grammar, but without exploring the social impact of its heroic depiction of racism. Lee’s student film was a ripost to that film.
As might be expected from a Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman has a lot of rhetoric. Before turning his attentions to the Klan, Stallworth is assigned to infiltrate the black power movement and he attends a rally given by (real life) activist Kwame Ture. Stallworth is inspired by Ture’s positive message of ‘all power to all for the people’ in the face of injustice, and it’s clear that it’s we the audience who are being preached to.
Much later we see a cross-cutting between a KKK rally with David Duke and a black rights event, the latter with a moving quiet cameo from Harry Belafonte recounting a brutal lynching from 1916. The two parallel sequences end in contrasting chants of ‘black power, black power’ and ‘white power, white power’. Although this sequence is slightly heavy handed and overlong, it does imply a question of whether violent protest is justifiable against violent racism, a topic which is only briefly explored in the film.
In many ways, BlacKkKlansman is a criticism of Donald Trump and the mood of the nation that put him in power. The film has many scenes that reference Trump, where racists talk about making America great again, and chanting ‘America first’. An early scene has Alec Baldwin as an incompetent racist orator – Baldwin’s Trump impersonations famously riled the President. Later Stallman is incredulous when a colleague suggests that one day a president will be elected who espouses the KKK’s racism, as they move into politics and their views are legitimised.
This is mostly played for bittersweet laughs until the much-discussed coda. After the story’s happy ending the film abruptly jumps to footage of the 2017 Charlottesville rally. We’re shown the violent killing of activist Heather Heyer by a white supremacist, and obscene equivocating speeches from both Trump and David Duke. The feelgood ending is immediately shattered and the film’s main point is hammered home: this racism isn’t a thing of the past, a time capsule story. It’s chillingly real today and is legitimised by the rise of the far right (and not just in the US). The tonal change is abrupt, in stark contrast to the cartoonish main story distanced by a 70s veil. The film wasn’t originally written to end this way – it was in pre-production when the incident occurred – but when he saw it Lee knew he had found his ending and quickly sought Heyer’s mother’s permission to use the footage.
It should be said that the politics of BlacKkKlansman has attracted some criticism. One of the most notable detractors is musician and filmmaker Boots Riley who pointed out that the film portrays most of the cops as the ‘good guys’ and glosses over daily police racism and violence that is still a problem today.
Riley complained that Lee changed some of the facts to make Stallworth and the cops look more heroic than they were: Stallworth spied on black activists for three years, not just for one rally, and records show the police’s infiltration was to disrupt the black movement and provoke violence. Patrice, the activist girlfriend who helps Stallworth understand his black identity, didn’t really exist. Stillman’s white cop colleague wasn’t really Jewish; Riley suggested that this was to make the cops appear to be risking more than they did. There was nothing in Stallworth’s book about a racist cop getting his comeuppance, these things didn’t happen. And even the bomb threat that is central to the story was a fiction.
Politics and veracity aside, the film itself has some serious flaws. The tone fluctuates erratically and it is overlong. Lee’s regular composer Terence Blanchard’s music was too prominent and overbearing at times, although the overall soundtrack is great including a wonderful unheard song from Prince over the closing credits. The film is often too blunt and obvious in its message and I wish Lee had explored more nuances rather than resort to cartoonish cliches. And the main story’s climax feels clumsy, despite being invented for the film.
That said, it’s entertaining, extremely funny, topical and very watchable. It looks good, and the acting is strong. Its master stroke is the serendipitous inclusion of the chilling Charlottesville coda that effectively hammers its point home. It emphasises that this isn’t just an amusing film about the struggles of America’s past, it’s a stark warning about our times. Spike Lee still has something urgent to say that’s worth listening to.