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.
16 (See IFCO for details)
BlacKkKlansman is released 24th August 2018