BlackkKlansman is Spike Lee's most focused feature film in years. But it is still disappointing.
"Spike Lee's greatest film."
"Spike Lee is at the height of his powers."
These are things critics have been saying about Spike Lee's latest joint, BlackkKlansman, but I have to be honest with you, dear reader: I don't understand why.
BlackkKlansman is based on the true story of police officer Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s by calling members of the Klan’s Colorado Springs chapter and pretending to be a white man.
The film, which stars John David Washington as the titular character, is entertaining enough. There are some moments of cringe humor when Ron chats on the phone with David Duke (the former Grand Wizard of the Klan, played with creepy normality by Topher Grace) that made me and my friend laugh out loud. Adam Driver stole every scene he was in as Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish police officer who goes undercover as Ron Stallworth when he needs to meet with Klan members in person.
There are also some beautifully photographed scenes throughout the film. Ron and his love interest, Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Harrier) dance in a bar, forming a Soul Train line with the other patrons as they all sing The Cornelius Brothers "It's Too Late To Turn Back Now" at the top of their lungs, a tribute to every rent party/basement party/spontaneous dance party that has ever happened in the history of Blackness.
And I did appreciate that Lee didn't shy away from white women's complicity in the Klan. One of the members' wives is, in a lot of ways, the most hardcore and dangerous member of this chapter of the Klan, despite her smiling demeanor and Suzy Homemaker facade. Too often, white women are somehow absolved from their role in upholding white supremacist structures in society.
I found myself feeling vaguely irritated the entire time I watched the movie. I wondered to myself why we see more insight into the character of Flip Zimmerman than we do Ron Stallworth, as Zimmerman questions whether he has been passing as white since he often downplays his Jewish heritage. (And this adds an extra layer of danger as he meets up with Klan members.)
I wondered why Stallworth seemed so inscrutable and if this was an acting choice of Washington's, Lee's direction, or a failure in writing. I wondered why there were such intense shifts in tone, from chilling monologues about "white power" to slapstick comedy involving the police gaining a confession from a corrupt officer.
I also found the inclusion of footage from last year’s “Unite The Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to be cheap. Last year, James Alex Fields, Jr. ran his car into a crowd of people protesting against the modern-day Klan rally happening just 117 miles from the nation’s capital, killing Heather Heyer and wounding several others.
Given that the movie features characters spewing a constant stream of racial epithets, cross burnings, a recounting of the lynching of Jesse Washington and footage from Birth of a Nation, a vile and enduring example of mass media propaganda, the inclusion of the Charlottesville footage felt like overkill. We already know that the Klan’s resurgence is here. It was already clear that there is a direct and undeniable throughline between the Klan of the 1970s and the Klan's resurgence now. Hell, David Duke is still alive and well and encouraging the current president every chance he can get. Adding that footage at the end felt not only unnecessary, but also unearned.
Moreover, I found myself wishing Patrice had more to do and that we had more insight into her thoughts and motivations. She says all the right platitudes that one would expect a Black Student Union president in the 1970s to say, but in effect, she has little to do aside from being someone Ron has to protect and defend.
To some extent, she challenges whether Ron Stallworth can truly be for Black liberation given that he is part of an institution that has proven to be wholly destructive to anyone who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual man. However, the film glosses over this very real conflict that is just as relevant in 2018 as it was 40 years ago.
And this is perhaps my biggest issue with BlackkKlansman. It posits the notion that we need the police to save us. That, despite a few “bad apples”, the police as an institution should be trusted. There is a bad cop in this film, who harasses Kwame Ture and assaults Patrice. But he is viewed as an outlier, rather than as part of a corrupt system that needs to be completely abolished. It bothered me that overall, this peculiar institution was portrayed as inherently good, and that cops on the whole are concerned with justice and righting wrongs. This is a story we have been fed in countless movies and TV shows where cops are always The Good Guys over the years and it is a tiresome notion in 2018. And it is rather perplexing that this kind of story is being delivered to us by Spike Lee, the same man who critiqued institutions of power so fervently in movies like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X.
But perhaps it is not so perplexing. A recent report revealed that Lee was paid $219,113 by the NYPD to consult on a public awareness campaign designed to “ strengthen the partnership between the NYPD and the communities it serves.” This is rich, considering this is the same NYPD that killed Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Kimani Gray and Eleanor Bumpurs, framed the Central Park Five, sent Kalief Browder to Rikers over an alleged stolen backpack, and has sent scores of young Black and Latinx people to jail thanks to its “broken windows” style of policing.
Lee obviously understands the power that cinema has to sway public opinion and our perceptions of ourselves; why else would BlackkKlansman begin with a scene from Gone With The Wind or make several references to Birth of a Nation? So why then use that power in service of an institution responsible for so much death and casual destruction?
It’s disappointing to see that BlackkKlansman only provides a surface-level understanding of what political organizing meant in the 1970s and what it means now, two decades into the 21st century and four years after the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wish Lee had showed the same reverence for Black liberation and Black empowerment that he showed for law enforcement, instead of reducing its organizers' principles to slogans and a style, to be put on and taken off at will.