Dir. Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
BlacKkKlansman begins with the famous crane shot from Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett, desperate to pass off the responsibility for delivering Melanie’s baby, looks for Dr. Meade. It pulls further and further and further away from what must be hundreds of men lying and groaning and writhing on the ground until the Confederate battle flag shows in the left foreground, ripped but still fluttering in the wind. He returns again and again to The Birth of a Nation, the movie which brought a host of new cinematic technique to the forefront of American filmmaking and which is simultaneously responsible for the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s most famous white nationalist organization this side of the FBI. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee makes an answer to those movies, which rank as propaganda at the same level as Triumph of the Will. (Lee also leans right into the blaxploitation films, namedropping Shaft and Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones as films which in their own way reject the paternalism and outright hatred promoted in those aforementioned epics.)
The answer is also to recent cinematic depictions of the Klan, which have been primarily ironic rather than serious. In the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, our bizarre trio of heroes rescues a black friend from a ritual lynching by the Klan and makes safe their getaway by using the Confederate flag as a projectile. When it comes out that the leader of the Klan is also the leading candidate for governor of the state, the man is ridden out of town on a rail. In Django Unchained, a proto-Klan rides out in white sheets, doing the things we associate with the post-Birth of a Nation Klan. But Quentin Tarantino makes them a ridiculous group, squabbling primarily about how the eyeholes in the hoods aren’t cut well enough. In the Coens’ picture, the Klan is a quaint and even unpopular part of the past. In Tarantino’s, the Klan is made up of racists whose primary characteristic is their stupidity. In neither one are they particularly dangerous. Lee has some years of history behind him which the Coens in particular did not, but he’s also had an eye on connecting the present with the past in a way that makes his contemporaries look relatively apathetic. This is the man who led Malcolm X with the beating of Rodney King, the one who made the last twenty minutes of Do the Right Thing part of a continuum rather than an isolated incident through the use of graffiti.
Spike Lee has as little work to do on this front as he’s ever had in BlacKkKlansman; the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year is the focus of the last few minutes of the film, and Lee actively connects the cross-burning of yesteryear with the tiki torches of last year. On August 11, the pictures of the screaming white guys carrying around backyard barbecue props were more fodder for memes than they were for horror. It wasn’t until August 12 that the horror took center stage, most significantly by James Alex Fields but with assists from the rest of the alt-right as well. Occasionally the Klansmen of BlacKkKlansman are funny; Paul Walter Hauser plays a particularly stupid member of the chapter that Ron (Washington) and Flip (Driver) infiltrate, and his stupidity is played for laughs. David Duke (Grace) features heavily, and some of the absolute funniest parts of the movie feature reactions people have to him while he’s on the phone. For the most part, especially towards the film’s explosive conclusion, they aren’t jokes. They have too much power to hurt other people. While the Klansmen of Colorado Springs are being inducted, the black student union of Colorado College is hearing from a man named Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), who witnessed the lynching of a black man wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman. His story is harrowing, and the inspiration for what happened to his acquaintance was The Birth of a Nation. It had just come out the year before, he says, and everyone was pretty jazzed up about it.
(I am sensitive to the point of view that suggests that Lee could have done a little less work in actively connecting the past to the present. David Duke basically invents “America First” and “Make America Great Again” over the course of the movie. In another scene, Trapp (Ken Garito) lets Ron in on the KKK’s new gameplan under David Duke. Respectability first, he says, changing their bigotry to words like “immigration” or “affirmative action” instead of the older, more transparent hits, and ultimately getting into politics. Maybe even getting one of their own into the White House. Ron is skeptical; Trapp calls him naive for thinking it couldn’t happen. I didn’t care much for those myself. Drawing a line between the Klan and Trump is a little too Twitter detective kompromat for me. Drawing a line between the Klan and the Unite the Right rally of 2017 is brilliant. There’s a powerful series in the movie where we see two separate actions unfold before we actually see David Duke talking; what he’s talking about is the same kind of rhetoric used by alt-right groups in the present, the usual “We have to talk about how much we like Jews, but we’re not allowed to talk about our culture,” etc.)
BlacKkKlansman walks that difficult line between comedy and thriller as well as one could hope for. Ron, on his first day in intelligence, calls up an ad for the Klan he finds in the local paper and does his best to playact as a white man while getting some information about the group and setting up a meeting. Everyone else in the office turns around to listen to this black man rattle off a list of epithets and slurs to prove a point. (Because Lee can be a little subtle when he wants to be, Ron tells a story on the phone about how his sister was “accosted” by black men. This is only a couple of minutes after a scene where another cop tries to get Ron to talk about how hot Cybill Shepherd is. “I liked her in The Last Picture Show,” Ron says, who is wise enough not to go for that particular piece of bait.) The most disbelieving look of all is on Flip’s face, though it turns out that the businesslike cop is not all that impressed with hearing the n-word that many times at work. Did I just hear you use your real name on a call? he asks. The cut to Washington’s face and the following line of dialogue are both gold: “Oh, motherfucker.” There’s an elite spit-take in this movie, and there are some good fish out of water moments for Washington and Driver alike to play off of for humor. Washington in particular plays a fairly stoic person whose personality would be wry in a situation much less fraught than this one. When he’s afraid that Flip is going to have to take a lie detector test administered by the chapter’s most rabid member, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), he rushes out of the car, heaves a rock through the kitchen window, and runs back to his car. It’s a funny moment followed immediately by a terrifying one; the Klansmen are, predictably, armed, and only after a quick struggle can Flip get the pistol out of Felix’s hands and rapidly unload a clip that does not threaten Ron at all.
The romantic subplot of the movie is not unwelcome, though it is a little surprising to see it. It seems like Ron would have enough reason to care about black liberation, or to see that black people weren’t maimed or killed by white nationalists, without a girlfriend being involved. Patrice (Laura Harrier) brings the old conflict of School Daze back to Lee’s movies. Harrier’s Patrice is cut from the same cloth as Fishburne’s Dap was thirty years ago, for whom all questions have right and wrong answers, and of those right answers, a particular dogma provides a catechism for the faithful to follow. Patrice predates Dap, and so her doctrine has more to do with Black Power than divestment from South Africa, which is Dap’s project. But for both looking the part is as important as doing the part. It’s not Patrice’s fault that she can do little more than bring men like Turner or Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to Colorado Springs to speak, while her pig boyfriend is infiltrating the Klan; all the same, from a practical perspective her hairdo and her leather jacket, which Ron pokes fun at, are doing much less than the man on the inside of a system she rightly despises is doing. We are no nearer to a clear answer about which perspective is more effective now than we were in 1988. Dap, after all, is the one who screams “Wake up!” on that brilliant Sunday after Homecoming after virtually everyone else in the story has debased himself or others the day before. And in BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth is instructed by the police chief (Robert John Burke), who has been quietly racist the whole movie under the guise of gruffness or even-handedness, to cease all communications with the Ku Klux Klan and destroy all records of the case.