Brian Quinn and Tom Crowley take another look at Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
“Unfiltered by metaphor, undiluted by allegory, Lee employs a design which leaves nothing left unsaid” – Brian Quinn
The lasting images that echo through my mind during the end credits of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman aren’t those of the homegrown terrorism stampeding through every scene, it’s the faces of African Americans blooming from darkness, each as dignified and dazzling as the next. It’s a series of close-ups director Spike Lee uses during a Black Power speech. As a soaring oratory charges the room our screen is lit by a spotlight sculpting extras into icons. It’s as if the film takes a breath between the static of hate and shares a moment of bliss for characters we’ll never see again.
Spike Lee Joints have always spotlighted the African American experience, his films explore and empower the marginalised while eroding the skin-colour hierarchy of Hollywood in the process. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee sets out to make a “contemporary period piece” based on the true story of Colorado Springs’ first black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who in 1973 successfully infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan.
Although set in the ’70s and shot on film there’s a timeless tangibility to these images. They’re clean and grainless as if this memoir, wrapped in a modern gloss was smuggled through time without a crease. It’s a subtle touch in a film blaring its messages from start to finish. Unfiltered by metaphor, undiluted by allegory, Lee employs a design which leaves nothing left unsaid. It’s an approach which at times seems fierce as well as clumsy. Parallels are drawn from past and present, spelt out, underlined then highlighted.
The film shines through its performances. With a catalogue of playful smirks and knowing looks Washington’s cute charm disarms the most hotheaded of cops and klansmen. It’s a portrayal which plays nicely against Adam Driver’s Zimmerman, a role which may prove to be the film’s most nuanced. “Why you acting like you don’t have skin in the game?” Stallworth asks his partner who undergoes a growing acceptance, embracing his jewish heritage after seemingly ignoring it his whole life. Identities shift and switch in BlacKkKlansman, voices are mimicked and mannerisms are mirrored as characters fashion different guises enabling them to heard.
Lee too uses a guise, one allowing him to connect to his audience. The film’s shuffled genres breed a political discourse packed inside borrowed conventions of palatable pastiche. From Buddy Cop capers to Blaxploitation flicks Lee references known frameworks to engage his audience in a rooted subject matter. The genre play is then deftly distorted as the cinematic dialogue is pried open even further where Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Birth of a Nation (1915) are put into a startling new context. It’s a shame then that the film’s clunky script undermines so much good intention.
Much of our time is spent revelling in the bigoted buffoonery of the Klan’s members, an oafishness which ultimately neuters any sense of real threat. Evil is caricatured by a slack-jawed impotence blundering through the film and it’s only in its final sequence do we feel doom knocking on our door. What transpires is an inspired sequence right out of Lee’s playbook which sees our characters catapult through time while stood still in a world rapidly changing around them.
BlacKkKlansman hits its targets loud and clear with a fury pitched past words. Evil becomes normalised with eery effect but leaves you wanting more to dig for. A Spike Lee Joint is a cinematic pipe-bomb shattering mainstream myths, showing us how Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s dream is still a dream. Where one is advised to turn the right cheek, Spike Lee is prepared to keep turning until he delivers a roundhouse kick to the jaw.
“An accomplished and important film” – Tom Crowley
BlackKklansman is Spike Lee’s most straightforward narrative since 2006’s Inside Man, for which he was merely a director for hire. BlackKklansman is a more personal film for Lee, given his politics. However, throughout his career Lee has never been afraid to work within genre. Heist film, Inside Man or war film, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), are modern examples but the list could go on.
BlackKklansman has all the tropes of an undercover cop film, the twist being that two undercover cops play the same role. Ron Stalwart – played by John David Washington, son of Denzel – infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan by calling their Colorado Springs chapter over the phone. Flip (Adam Driver) Zimmerman is the man tasked to impersonate Ron for face-to-face meetings with the notorious ‘organisation’.
The relationship between Ron and Flip is indicative of the buddy cop scenario. There is a woman, student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), who Ron clearly shouldn’t get involved with but does anyway. The police chief (Robert John Burke) makes things as difficult as possible, along with a mustachioed, racist cop (Frederick Weller) not unlike Dixon, Sam Rockwell’s character in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), all of which are devices to keep the film ticking along.
Yet, despite conforming to formula at almost every turn, BlackKkKlansman is still an excellent film, in equal parts comic and thrilling. From the word go Lee makes correlations between his ’70s set feature and the unfortunate climate of modern-day America. The first link is the casting of Alec Baldwin. In a cameo, Baldwin plays a KKK leader making a propaganda promo video. He constantly messes up, forgetting and fluffing his lines. Baldwin is, of course, now synonymous with his less than flattering impersonation of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Later on, David Duke, portrayed in the film by Topher Grace in full weasel mode, talks to Ron, under the impression that he is also a racist bigot, about making America ‘great again’. When Ron has a conversation about Duke with Patrice she suggests that Duke is angling to get into politics. Ron retorts that American’s would never be so stupid to vote for someone like David Duke, to which Patrice replies ‘Wake Up!’, a signature mantra Lee has used to his fellow African-Americans throughout his 30-year-plus career.
Whatever way BlackKklansman is being received, this is not a ‘long-awaited’ return to political cinema for Lee. He landed a punch right on the nose of American gun violence in 2015 with Chi-Raq, just nobody saw it. Chi-Raq took in just $2.7 million off a $15 million budget. It was a modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the black women of Chicago withhold sex until gun violence ceased, their mantra- ‘No Peace, No Pussy’. Like BlackKklansman it had an extraordinarily timely message with moments of hilarity as a counterbalance. However, because of its rhythmic dialogue and unconventional filmmaking style, nobody seemed to be interested. BlackKklansman has taken $40 million from a $15 million budget since its release in the States on August 10th. Chi-Raq and BlackKklansman are both equally important films, but crucially the latter is far more accessible for a wide-reaching audience.
Lee expertly balances the film’s tonality. He depicts the Klansman as clear buffoons, whose political views are something to laugh at and ridicule- while also keeping in the back of the minds of his audience that these views are dangerous and should be dealt with seriously. He does this through the character of David Duke, an ambitious man who is willing and able to sanitise his bigotry in order to get into positions of power- where he can really do some damage. The final scenes and images are deeply affecting, almost making one forget how entertained they were for the films previous two-hour running time. Dare I say it is the most hard-hitting sequence Lee has put together in his career, played out by a live recording of Prince’s Mary Don’t You Weep. It is a sequence that instantly takes us from the distance of entertainment and brings the film’s serious thematic message crashing down on our chest. An accomplished and important film.