Director: Spike Lee
Having come off a refresher course on Spike Lee Joints - I recently watched or re-watched Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues and Summer of Sam - I am more alive than ever to the ‘Spikisms’ that have on enthralled (and in some cases, exasperated) audiences over four decades of the outspoken and mercurial director’s work. A willingness to mix in absurdity with a clear-eyed analysis of prejudice. The odd fourth-wall breaking moment. Bravura camerawork such as the yes of the ‘double dolly’ sequence. Eclectic, punchy soundtracks saturated in black musical history, ranging from jazz to the cutting edge of hip-hop. Provocative, charismatic, but also contradictory leading black characters that are used to highlight the racial injustice of American history and the multiple, sometimes competing, ideological standpoints developed within black communities to analyse and respond to their oppression. This is the filmmaker who ended his acclaimed Do the Right Thing with two onscreen extracts from speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, placed side by side. Who was right?
Much of the above can be sensed, and enjoyed, in Lee’s riotously entertaining, vividly angry, and unashamedly urgent new film: BlacKkKlansman, which is set in Colorado Springs the politically turbulent 1970s. Like other Lee films, it too suffers from much the same flaws: it is overlong, self-indulgent at times, and hardly subtle. But Lee is not making this film in subtle times. He is making them in Trumpian times. Thus when our lead character, rookie undercover cop (and the first black man in the Colorado Springs force) Ron Stallworth, is told by his Sergeant that the Ku Kux Klan his team is investigating have their eyes ultimately on getting their suited and well-coiffed leader, David Duke, into the White House, Stallworth’s scoffing at the idea is meant to evoke a knowing groan from progressive-minded audiences fresh from President Trump’s ‘very fine people’ comment about the notorious Nazi marchers who so troubled Charlottesville in 2017. Lee, always keen to inject archival footage directly into his films to slap you upside the head with a realisation that outside his movies, real life is actually going on to provide him with his material, even shows us camera footage of the appalling murder of Heather Hay by a far right activist who ploughed his car into crowds of anti-Nazi protesters. A chilling line is drawn between what we see Stallworth’s team fighting, and what we see on our TV’s today. Are the good guys winning, Lee asks us. Unspoken also is an answer to the question: ‘are Spike Lee’s films still relevant?’ Trump may be beyond most satire, but maybe not beyond Lee’s form of anger-drenched satire.
I certainly couldn’t deny that Lee, who is diving once again into the 60s-70s period to find source material, has an interesting story on his hands. The aforementioned cop Ron Stallworth actually was an undercover detective who, as ridiculous as it sounds, got himself fully signed up to the KKK through using his ‘white voice’ on the telephone in conversation with various Klan figures, right up to and including the Klan leader David Duke. Played mostly with simmering restraint by relative newcomer John David Washington (son of longstanding Lee Collaborator Denzel) Washington, another way Lee’s film connects neatly back to his own film history), Stallworth is an interestingly ambiguous figure, and reminiscent of some of Lee’s other black leads who sit on uneasy faultiness that cross their communities' prejudices and expectations, their jobs demands and status, and their own stated beliefs. Stallworth, who dresses pretty slick and sports a formidable afro (he evokes black style icons such as Shaft, figures who are directly referenced as touchstones in the narrative itself), is seen in the opening few minutes signing up for his local police precinct’s minority recruitment drive. This requires a gruelling interview with two police higher-ups, one black, who make it clear in queasily frank terms that he will be in for a shit-tonne of racist abuse as a black rookie. Turn the other cheek will be expected. “I’ll do what is necessary” is Stallworth’s reply. So is this ambitious trumping a desire for justice? Or is Stallworth looking to subvert the system from within? Washington gives a pretty fair sense of the anger that still roles under the surface as, stuck in a records room role, he has to deal with one casual (and not so casual) racist cop after another slapping request sheets dismissively in front of him. Busting out wacky karate moves when all his peers are out of sight helps him let off steam.
Stallworth’s ability to straddle various of various camps is put to the real test when his fist investigation as an undercover cop - a role he basically blags his way into to get out of records, impressing his gruff precint chief - is an order to infiltrate a black consciousness rally where real-life intellectual Stokely Carmichael AKA Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is to speak. Ture’s speech allows Lee to deploy another ‘Spikism’; slowly zooming the camera in, during an extended take, onto a black figure delivering an incendiary commentary on race, power, oppression, and black pride. Lee also pans the camera onto various faces in the crowd, focusing on several at key moments and using computer effects to drop out the background momentarily to let them hover alone, suggesting the transporting effects of Ture’s message of finding the beauty in blackness. Its heady stuff, especially when Ture suggests the Vietnam War disgusts him so much he’d prefer a black man killed a racist cop in self defence rather than Vietnamese at at least the latter incident would have a reason behind it. When Stallworth gives a fist to the sky in salute, is this an act, or is he buying it? Is this a ‘pig’ infiltrating his own people, or the beginnings of a black awakening?
It is Stallworth’s growing relationship with the Colorado Springs black student president Patrice (Laura Harrier) that allows the question of his loyalties and consciousness to be debated, and Washington and Harrier have palpable chemistry as they walk-and-talk. But the film kind of ducks any resolution to this in favour of getting back to the compelling main story: Stallworth’s alternately ludicrous and genuinely high-risk infiltration of the Colorado Spring chapter of the Klan, which progresses from Stallworth’s blackly funny phone calls to the local Klan president, all of which involve the rookie having to literally go through the racist dictionary top to bottom to keep the conversations going convincingly (this remains queasily funny throughout), to having to then find a white officer to take on the physical role of ‘white Ron’ when the Klan actually want to recruit and use him in their various endeavours (most of which involve pedestrian meetings in cramped and chintzy living rooms where popcorn is munched, not quite the locale of racist overlords about to triumph). Enter Flip Zimmerman, an insouciant veteran undercover officer, who provides a more interesting reflection and point of debate on Stallworth’s lived experience. Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew who expresses annoyance at Stallworth’s ‘rookie crusade’ attitude towards what should be a job, finds that the Klan’s hatred of Jews requires he do in person what Ron does over the phone: mouth spit out racist epithets like he was born to it. Zimmerman comes to realise his ability to ‘pass’ might have helped him doge the kind of bullets Stallworth’s skin colour rules out, day by day. Adam Driver is as reliable as ever in this kind of role, playing a character whose slowly shifting viewpoint is credibly transmitted, and he and Washington on screen together not only provide some of the film’s comedy high points (as Stallworth tries to teach Zimmerman his own idea of a white voice, a truly bizarre notion) but also serve as a charming nod to the mismatched buddy cop cliche.
The film’s latter acts bring the figure of David Duke to the fore, embodied more than adequately by the disarmingly fresh-faced and genteel-mannered Topher Grace, but also allow Lee to deliver perhaps his most memorable flourish. At one black consciousness meeting organised by, a senior activist recalls a horrific occasion from his youth where young black colleague was lynched openly in a southern town, the locals treating the event as if a country fair, even snapping photographs to use as souvenir postcards. Lee cuts repeatedly between this meeting (which features a cameo from black acting icon Harry Belafonte, no less) and a KKK induction ceremony that Zimmerman is attending, where the notoriously racist but cinematically significant D.W. Griffiths epic Birth of a Nation is being screened, to rapturous applause by its racist audience at the sight of KKK figures crushing black-faced figures and saving a fictional post- Civil War USA from a perceived downfall at the hands of the newly liberated slaves. Such cross-cutting not only allows these two different forms of conciousness and activism to be contrasted to the detriment of the racists, but nods to the fact that cross-cutting to create dramatic tension is one of the cinematic legacies of Griffiths's movie. Beyond being a form of reclamation and criticism, this co-opting/homage also to me feels like a personal exploration by Lee of his own feelings of despair and rage at watching Griffith’s movie at film school as a young man, wondering why the amazement at the film’s aesthetics smothered fury at such blatant racism, racism which was widely attest to have helped rejuvenate the Klan in the 20th Century. So BlackKkKlansman is, in its own way, Spike Lee vs D.W Griffiths. And Lee wins this one.