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Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman (2018; Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee surely must be master of the problematic nearly-great film. One of the most talented American cinematic craftsmen and capable ideological disseminators of his generation, Lee has nonetheless made frustratingly few above-average films over the past quarter-century. It’s always difficult to diagnose from a remove, but the Spike Lee joints that climb close to greatness since his early-’90s peak – Bamboozled, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, his definitive Hurricane Katrina HBO documentary series When the Levees Broke – accomplish much only to be frustratingly hamstrung by something: generic convention, low-rent production, thwarted ambition, a questionable choice or five. But sometimes that something is very obviously Lee himself, polemically preening and chest-beating and double-underlining his intentions and pushing his luck too far, finally.

BlacKkKlansman nearly makes it to the rarified heights of Lee’s best work (by which we mean Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, though I’m working by reputation alone since I am mortified to admit that I haven’t yet seen either of them to remedy that particular gap in my film history knowledge), only to badly miss its landing. It can be argued, as Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley did on Twitter upon the film’s release in August, that it’s only by a series of dishonest fabrications and general political wishy-washiness that BlacKkKlansman even approaches those heights. We can consider those complaints in due time as well, and indeed the film’s problems vis-à-vis its supposed “true story”, though strictly speaking lying outside the textual purview itself, are inextricable from the elements of the film text that kneecap its stronger aspects.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington). A fresh addition to the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, Stallworth chafes at his rookie assignment to the records room and the casual anti-black bigotry of white officers. He presses Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to use him on undercover work, which the chief eventually does, but only to run intelligence against local black activist groups and surveil a speech in town by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, now going by the Africanized name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Though he is there to sniff out potential black radicalism and threats of insurrectionist violence (the real Stallworth infiltrated and destabilized radical groups along the lines of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, as Riley notes but Lee does not), Stallworth has a sort of stealth awakening listening to Ture’s words about historical and current oppression of African-Americans. He also meets and becomes involved with a local college’s black student body president and activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a “pig” and would be quick to dump his cop ass if she did.

Perhaps impelled by Ture’s ideas but also seemingly on a random whim (more than a few plot points here feel this way, to be frank), Stallworth dials up the phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter advertised in the newspaper and pretends to be a virulently racist white man (unfortunately while using his real name) who is interested in joining what initiates call “the Organization”. He strikes up a rapport with contacts by repeating bigoted Klan-friendly talking points and even applies for membership, but cannot infiltrate the group in person, for obvious reasons. Fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends Klan meet-ups and ceremonies in his place, though Flip’s being Jewish introduces another wrinkle of tension to his encounters with the anti-semitic Klansmen. Together, Ron and Flip get an inside view of “the Organization”, and uncover members in sensitive military and national-security positions as well as a deadly plot against Patrice and her fellow black activists, even as Ron becomes telephone pals with the KKK’s Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs for his prized new recruit’s initiation.

Broadly speaking, this is some of Spike Lee’s strongest material in years, and BlacKkKlansman‘s core premise is suffused with dramatic irony and tension that proves both entertaining and productive for raising ideas about the African-American struggle for social justice. In a conversation with Ron, Patrice introduces W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of Black American identity as a kind of double consciousness, an internal psychological and identitarian cleavage in every African-American body between the American ideal of citizenship (liberty, justice, inalienable rights) and the oppressive reality of life in American as a black person (where the rights that are inalienable for white folks are consistently denied to black folks, whether in law, in systemic tendencies, or in social conditioning and practices).

BlacKkKlansman‘s layered ironies and juxtaposed ideas are grounded in double consciousness. Ron and Flip both find the beliefs and rhetoric of the KKK deplorable, but Washington and especially Driver slip so convincingly into performing the role of white supremacist that they bamboozle the targets of their investigation and even trouble the audience with the thought that they might really mean it. Both men have internalized the language of bigotry that they hear around them (and sometimes about them) in their country, and when they project it, it is readily believed. There is a double consciousness to this performance, and performance it is, as signaled firmly by Lee in the film’s opening sequence, with Alec Baldwin as a Klan propagandist recording polemic for the group and frequently breaking the litany of racism with actorly touches like enunciation exercises and line checks. This double consciousness is even legible in the figure of David Duke, who presents a well-dressed professional corporate front to the Klan as an extended PR campaign but can slip with sinister ease into the worst racist tropes in a manner made only more unsettling by the inspired casting of Grace, who presents as an amiable Eric Foreman all-grown-up before slipping on the robe and hood.

BlacKkKlansman‘s employment of Du Bois’ double consciousness reaches a virtuoso crescendo in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and one of the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Lee crosscuts between Flip’s Klan initiation ceremony as Racist Ron, which includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 KKK propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, and a speech about the heinous and contemporaneous 1916 lynching of African-American Jesse Washington made to Patrice’s activist group by a witness to it, Jerome Turner (played by civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte, no less). Turner details the inhuman torture, mutilations, and execution of Washington by a white mob, the carnivalesque atmosphere that accompanied it (photos were taken of the lynching and souvenir postcards were sold), and the role of Griffith’s blockbuster film (“history written with lightning”, as President Woodrow Wilson praised it) in rejuvenating the Klan and emboldening its attacks on the black way of life, while Flip/Ron’s Klan confrères hoot and holler approvingly at a KKK lynching depicted heroically in Birth of a Nation. Lee closes the scene with contending chants of “black power” and “white power” at each event, his crosscutting (a filmic technique pioneered by Griffith in Birth of a Nation, as AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger notes in its Scenes of the Year entry) becoming a counterattacking weapon against the racist cinematic propaganda enshrined at the heart of American movie history by Griffith while also noting the intractable persistence of the racial divisions that animated that film and define American society down to today.

“Propaganda” is a key term, because for all of its considerable strengths, BlacKkKlansman is partly undone by a turn towards the propagandistic, complete with the form’s fabrications of convenience and self-favourable framings. For all of its compelling subtextual applications of double consciousness, the forefront textual use of it is to consider, and ultimately provide a stamp of thoughtful approval to, Ron Stallworth’s contradictory attempt to turn the authority and power of the police towards social justice goals. Boots Riley comes down particularly hard on this element of BlacKkKlansman, criticizing the script’s inventions and elisions of Stallworth’s work: he was undercover in radical black organizations for not one night but three years and did not begin his Klan infiltration until 1979, not in 1972; his white undercover partner was not Jewish, there was no ticking-bomb terrorist threat by the KKK he investigated as the film’s climax depicts, and a goofy feel-good coda sting on a bigoted white cop did not happen.

According to Riley, much of what BlacKkKlansman shows as going on behind the scenes in its Klan investigation could not happen: Black Lives Matter and related social justice spearheaders continue to spotlight police profiling and oppression of and violence towards African-Americans in the country of today, as well as law enforcement’s comparative kid gloves approach towards hard-right groups who incite and commit violent acts with far greater regularity. Riley firmly believes and expresses his belief that the police are not on the same side as progressive black social activists, and notes suggestively that Spike Lee has been paid by the NYPD to help improve their image with black communities. BlacKkKlansman is premised on the idea that the police not only can and should but have previously busted up racist organizations in a humbly semi-enlightened effort to be social justice warriors. Riley argues it’s a lie, and despite Lee’s protestations, it’s hard to learn much about the subject and say that he’s entirely wrong.

Lee mildly fudges his film’s true-to-life claims with an opening title card in his idiomatic vernacular: “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. But BlacKkKlansman turns from polemical fictionalization to sober, pointed documentary in a startling and more than a little off-putting whiplash switch at its conclusion. The film gives way to news footage of the August 2017 far-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (BlacKkKlansman‘s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the event that shocked the country), reports of the murder of liberal counterprotestor Heather Heyer that weekend, and President Donald Trump’s infamous hood-lifting moment in which he informed the press that some of the tiki-torch-wielding neo-nazi marchers were “very good people”. The real David Duke even makes an appearance, his continued presence as a public figure proving that Stallworth’s duping of him was of only marginal use, in the end.

BlacKkKlansman has its problems beyond its predilection towards propaganda and provocation. The screenplay by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott shows a fondness for silly, borderline-cartoon supporting characters (like Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie, the ebullient but virulently racist wife of Jasper Pääkkönen’s hostile Klan member Felix who cannot wait to be the virginal white female rape victim in a vigilante lynching fantasy), and overemphasizes beats that another filmmaker might have left respectfully subtle and implied. Wilmott’s screenwriting credit calls to mind his politically challenging but inescapably cheap (in all senses of the word) satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (which Lee produced), and BlacKkKlansman contains far more of that film’s cornpone carnival-barker tone than is good for it (though I laughed at the callback to Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s immortal catchphrase from The Wire, his early cameo including it takes one out of the film right at its beginning).

But ultimately BlacKkKlansman is afflicted with a larger, self-hampering double consciousness. It is grounded in a deep knowledge of African-American history and politics and considerable filmic craft and film-history literacy. In the memorable Birth of a Nation montage sequence, Lee makes a powerful audio-visual argument about how racial inequality is reinforced and spread. It leans towards manipulative fabrications on top of established fact to strengthen its points and concludes its essentially comedic story with feel-good limited triumphs and solidarity while paying lip service to the ingrained inequity and cover-ups endemic to the system. But it renders these narratively-earned victories entirely pyrrhic with its concluding documentarian evocation of the continued and even increased relevance of far-right racism of the Klan sort. The struggle, of course, always continues, and racism, in America as elsewhere in the world, persists and must continue to be fought. But just how it should be fought is a matter that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, as potent and effective as it can be at its best, proves frustratingly inconsistent, obtuse, and disingenuous about.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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