Another Look at BlacKkKlansman

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.

 

Share

Review: BlacKkKlansman

DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee • DOP: Chayse Irvin • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • MUS: Terence Blanchard • DES: David Wilson • PRO: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick • CAST: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace. Ron Stallworth

 

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation has held an awkward spot in film history since its initial release in 1915. Hailed as a pioneer of film form, Griffith ushered in techniques now foundational to film grammar. He is also responsible for the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. Adapted from a book entitled The Clansman, the film depicted the KKK as a group of swashbuckling heroes, whose lynchings were heroic acts of vigilantism. Many took the film as a call to arms.

 

Today, wide swathes of the modern audience detest The Birth of a Nation and what it represents. Among them is Spike Lee, writer/director of BlacKkKlansman. However, at a Q&A in the BFI Southbank in London, Lee makes it clear, “I never said people shouldn’t see Birth of a Nation,” he says, “I just think we should talk about it.”

 

And BlacKkKlansman is truly a film in conversation with that uncomfortable history. The film opens with the iconic shot of wounded soldiers from Gone With the Wind and later includes footage from The Birth of a Nation, screened to a guffawing audience clad in white robes. Lee allows the viewer to consider these scenes beyond the veil of form and under their larger social context. It is in this very conversation that BlacKkKlansman reveals itself as a film full of passionate, direct emotion and carefully considered direction and storytelling.

 

Shot on 35mm film, Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin also harken back to 1970s Blaxploitation films. Shots are grainy and saturated, and the production design sees that all in-frame elements are period-accurate. The soundtrack is stocked with a selection of blues classics, while the score evokes ’70s kitsch with an orchestral intensity.

 

With such strict adherence to period detail, Lee’s typical winks to camera are absent. The true story of Ron Stallworth is allowed stand on its own two feet. As a rookie cop for the Chicago Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) leads an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan that leads him all the way to Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke. Alongside him is Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who poses as Ron Stallworth at face-to-face meetings, while the real Ron to corresponds by phone. The fact that Lee – a famously self-referencing, fourth-wall-breaking filmmaker – has taken such a straight-faced approach to Ron’s story says it all – in this case, what can be crazier than the truth?

 

The film walks a tonal tightrope in portraying the Klan as both a crew of bumbling clowns and a legitimate threat to society. Lee is able to flip things on a dime, jerking the audience from laughter into a dead silence. The full emotional gamut is at play here – joy, shock, awe, terror. Things reach their emotional apex at the use of Griffith very own cross-cutting to unite the testimony of a Civil Rights pioneer (Harry Belafonte) and the delight of an audience of cross-burners. A composed anger seethes through every frame.

 

This quiet anger of dualities is the thematic constant. Dual identities stay on the film’s mind. The light-skinned person of color passing for white. The behind-closed-doors racist passing for objective law enforcement. The Jewish police officer passing for an anti-semetic Klansman. The black police detective passing for a white supremacist over the phone. A period piece passing for contemporary.

 

BlacKkKlansman is not a film in conversation solely with the past. Links to the present are often loud and explicit – the audience is called several times to “Wake Up”. The implementation of footage from last year’s alt-right march in Charlottesville is sure to shake any viewer to their core.

 

Truly a film heavy with the burden of its own ideas, BlacKkKlansman remains unable to show strain beneath them. Not without its stylistic flourishes, the result is still a film that speaks loud and clear all the way back to the cheap seats. Once-film critic and French New Wave bad-boy Jean-Luc Godard has said, “I used to write criticism; now I film it.” Spike Lee may have never written reviews, but he has carved out quite a legacy in filming his own criticism. The vital question he poses in 2018 is less whether his targets will hear him; more whether his allies will take his message to heart and continue the march toward sunrise.
Cian Geoghegan

16 (See IFCO for details)

135 minutes
BlacKkKlansman is released 24th August 2018

 

Share