Spike Lee’s American Seminar

‘BlacKkKlansman’
(Focus Features)

While prepping for an NPR roundtable discussion on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, I realized how out of touch I’d gotten with his work. The films I’ve seen are from the first half of the director’s career, and I’ve missed such provocative features as 25th Hour and Chi-Raq, as well as his highly praised documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke. Lately I haven’t felt the need to see his movies, on the assumption that he basically does the same thing over and over. But I should have kept up with Lee, who is a much more wide-ranging and versatile director than I’d given him credit for.

BlacKkKlansman illustrates the point. It’s based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who became the first black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs—“the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs Police Department,” says his chief. Initially exiled to the records department, where he endures casual slights from racist cops as he retrieves files for them, Stallworth soon gets reassigned to undercover work. His first assignment is to infiltrate the local black-power movement, where he attends a speech by firebrand Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and falls for the attractive student leader who organized the event, Patrice (Laura Harrier).

Excited by undercover work, but feeling guilty for having betrayed his fellow African Americans, Stallworth undertakes to infiltrate the black-power group’s polar opposite: the Klan. Responding to an ad in the paper, he calls the local branch of the KKK and—imitating the voice of a white man—volunteers to join. When his offer is accepted, he faces an obvious problem: how can a black man show up as a recruit for the KKK? So Stallworth inveighs upon a white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate him.

Lee uses this improbable story to cue up an exploration of racial identity, black culture, and racism in the United States, past and present. His brazenly eclectic film is a cinematic grab bag that freely mixes diverse modes, references, and tones. It opens with the iconic scene from Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara walks among wounded and dying soldiers in a vast open-air hospital, beneath the tattered Confederate flag. This is followed by a weird pastiche of a ranting 1950s eugenicist, played in a deftly lunatic cameo by Alec Baldwin, spouting toxic race theory. Later we get some standard cop drama, but also a good deal of comedy. There are scenes that fondly echo blaxploitation films of the era. There’s a scene in a dance club that pays homage to Soul Train. And during Ture’s speech Lee has the camera pan slowly across the crowd of listeners, all sporting giant Afros, a tableau of beautiful black faces looming and merging almost surreally. This pictorial ode to the Afro serves as a hortatory resurrection of the “Black is Beautiful” credo; as Ture passionately expounds that credo, Lee illustrates it, with a misty montage of an ideal of black beauty. 

Though there is a story to BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s mission is didactic rather than dramatic. Compare his film with Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave. Both directors engage the reality and the legacy of American slavery. But McQueen draws us deep into the horror of slavery so that we emerge from the film appalled and moved. Spike Lee is too protean and mischievous a director to do that. He’s more interested in raising issues and making points than in pushing viewers through the kind of vicarious emotional toils that make up Twelve Years a Slave. BlacKkKlansman is a film of ideas rather than emotions.

Lee tilts his film toward the reality of where we are now, giving an elbow in the ribs to all those Americans who didn't believe Donald Trump could happen.

Above all, Lee—a great student of American cinema—is out to stalk the great elephant in the room of American film history: D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic, The Birth of a Nation. Lee has had it on his radar since his film-school days at NYU, when he made a short film about an African-American screenwriter hired to rewrite Griffith’s film. Now, decades later, he has done it after a fashion, weaving scenes of Griffith into BlacKkKlansman. There’s the riotously awful scene at the start, with the eugenicist played by Alec Baldwin spewing racist invective as title boxes from Birth of a Nation splash over his face. Later, Lee presents scenes of David Duke (a smarmily scary Topher Grace) leading a Klan viewing of the Griffith film; he parallels them with a black-power meeting, presided over by an elderly black man (played movingly by Harry Belafonte) describing the notorious 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas—a lynching that happened a year after Birth of a Nation, part of a wave of white racist wrath set off by the film.

Even as he engages with the aftermath of the Birth of a Nation, Lee puts that film’s structure to his own didactic uses. Griffith’s drama culminated with the Klan riding into town to rescue the whites of Piedmont, South Carolina from the clutches of depraved blacks; a long, climactic sequence cuts back and forth between the two groups, amping up the contrast between galloping white heroism and swarming black depravity. Lee co-opts this narrative, cutting back and forth between depraved whites and enlightened blacks, reversing the earlier film’s egregious moral and emotional lesson.

BlacKkKlansman effects further ironic reversals, some having to do with the deception Stallworth practices on the Klan. When he proposes making an overture to the group, his chief expresses doubt. “They’re going to know the difference between how a white man speaks and a negro,” he insists. Stallworth retorts, “How does a black man speak?”, and later elaborates: “Some people speak the King’s English, others speak jive. I happen to be fluent in both.”

Deploying his protagonist as a practitioner of what might be called “whitevoice,” Lee riffs satirically on the egregious blackface that figured so prominently in Birth of a Nation. Stallworth’s pitch-perfect ventriloquism invokes black performers from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence to Chris Rock—who have hilariously lampooned white people, typically with a geeky nasality that plays as the essence of uncool—even as it invokes themes of racial passing and code-switching. The bad guys in BlacKkKlansman are duly befuddled by the ruse. Though they rhapsodize about whiteness, the Klan members can’t even tell that a whitevoice impostor is on the other end of the line. “I’m just happy to be talking to a true white American,” David Duke says to Stallworth. When the latter mischievously suggests that he might be a black man impersonating a white man, Duke scoffs. “I can always tell when I’m talking to a negruh,” he boasts.  

But whitevoice has its flip side. While he’s able to dupe the Klan with his imposture, Stallworth is regarded with mistrust by the would-be revolutionaries in the black-power group. Is he on board with the revolution? Why does he refuse to call cops pigs? Is he...black enough? The questions take up the theme of black identity—a topic Lee has returned to over the years—and explore its political ramifications. We can hear Lee thinking out loud, especially in the relationship between Ron and Patrice, whose bickering about working within “the system” or dismantling it traces a dichotomy that goes back to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. You get the feeling Lee is arguing with himself about the nature of social and political change. He gives Stallworth credibility as a black man who does not identify himself as a revolutionary, even as he portrays him as incompletely clued in to the full reality of racism. At one point a fellow cop—a white cop—warns that one day Americans might elect someone like David Duke to the White House, and Stallworth expresses complacent disbelief. Lee tilts his film toward the reality of where we are now, giving an elbow in the ribs to all those Americans who didn't believe Donald Trump could happen.

 

What does the film say about Stallworth’s relatively optimistic take on the capacity of this nation to come to terms with racism? Is our American glass half full or half empty? I thought I detected an underlying ambivalence in BlacKkKlansman. Its didacticism is informed by righteous anger at the racist history of this country. But there are contending impulses in Lee, not least of which is pleasure. The Soul Train scene, as Stallworth and Patrice join a crowd dancing to the cheesy ‘70s hit “It’s Too Late To Turn Back Now,” reflects Lee’s love of the American pop culture—black and white—that he grew up with. There's also the droll mischief of the way he ends the film, with a burst of frat-brother-like hijinks in which black and white cops join together in a telephone pranking of David Duke. This kind of comedy is fundamentally forgiving, suggesting that we really all can get along, after all—most of us, anyway, as long as we recognize the basic contours of social justice, and where someone like David Duke fits within them. 

Yet the movie closes with bitter gravity and witness, incorporating footage from the right-wing violence of Charlottesville, including the anguish of spectators to the killing of Heather Heyer, and Donald Trump’s lame and evasive apologia. Though his film looks mostly backward, Lee has said in an interview that BlacKkKlansman is “about today,” and that it addresses the question, “Are we going forward or backward?” It is interesting to see that all these decades after Do the Right Thing, Lee still hasn't decided about America. His continued thinking out loud gives the film something of the aura of a seminar—a political and cultural one, led by an antic and resourceful professor. It would be the best class on campus.

Published in the October 19, 2018 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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