BlacKkKlansman (2018) by Spike Lee
Review by Andrew Swafford and Lydia Creech
ANDREW: Thanks for agreeing to review this jointly with me, Lydia--there’s a lot going on in BlacKkKlansman and I don’t think either one of us are necessarily qualified to speak on it with much authority, so hopefully we can unpack it slightly better as a team.
LYDIA: No, thank you, Andrew! It really struck a chord with me, and I’m glad to have help to bounce reactions off of. Two heads are better than one and all.
ANDREW: I think the best place to start would be to talk about each of our relationships to Spike Lee--he’s a major American filmmaker by any fair construction of “the canon,” and this is his 24th narrative feature (to say nothing of his notable work as a documentarian).
So I’ll go first: Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. I haven’t watched his entire filmography (I’ve seen 11 of his films), and a lot of the ones I have seen have conspicuous flaws--but they’re always interesting flaws. I think that an imperfect Spike Lee movie is always more exciting to watch, think about, and talk through than a more polished movie by a less ambitious filmmaker. Chi-Raq, for example, I named as my favorite film of the year back in 2015, and I think I stand by that, despite some of the legitimate criticisms have been brought against it since. He has this incredible knack for making a movie move with such spirit and vivacity; he also has an almost unthinkable willingness to abandon any formal style that you might associate with him in an effort to make every film feel fresh--and they all do, whatever issues might arise along the way. And then he’s got a number of these grand masterpieces--Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game, 25th Hour, and more, depending on who you ask--that most filmmakers never even make one of. I also feel a little protective of Spike Lee’s work, considering how often he’s derided by bad faith arguments about reverse-racism and all that, the likes of which I’ve never seen in film discourse outside of conversations about Lee--he’s obviously pissing off the right people, and I admire how unapologetic he is about it. Cinema always has a political dimension--Lee is just a bit more audacious than most in how he explores it.
LYDIA: On the other hand, I’m fairly new to exploring Lee’s work (I’ve only seen 4 before this one), and what I have seen I’ve had conflicted reactions about, especially Chi-Raq. One thing have really appreciated in all (the limited) films I’ve seen is how very clearly he sets his sights on saying something about racism (I also won’t buy that reverse racism is a thing). Sometimes I’ve been a little confused on what that something is exactly, but the thematic consistency and obvious passion is what I’ve really responded to. When he’s good, he’s really good, and the searing clarity of BlacKkKlansman was the most compelling to me.
It follows the (“fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t!”) story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel), who was the first African American to join the Colorado Springs police department and was instrumental in leading an undercover (!) investigation into the local KKK chapter that lead to the prevention of a terrorist attack. It’s outrageously unbelievable, other than the fact that it’s based off a true story, to think that a black man could pick up the phone and hate-speech his way into an invite to the local racist meet-up. It’s clownishly obvious and offensive, but it works! Lee does a hilarious job poking fun at the kind of people that join the Klan (there’s an extended discussion of the different way words are pronounced as a litmus test of who’s white or black), but, importantly, he also shows how insidious and pervasive racist ideologies can be.
ANDREW: One question that I’ve been considering over the past year in relation to obviously political films like this is: how effective are they? Not just at telling self-identifying liberals what they want to hear, but actually making an impact and changing minds. For example, I talked on the podcast about how I’ve lost enthusiasm for The Shape of Water since realizing that its depiction of “the powers that be” is such a straw-man caricature that it likely will only piss off the folks who need to learn the film’s lesson, ensuring its own failure on a political level--it’s not very strategic.
In the case of BlacKkKlansman, I don’t think Lee has any delusions about being able to convert actual white klansmen to the cause of black liberation, but I do think it's worth considering who he is talking to and what they will take away from the movie. Is he just offering agitprop to left-leaning people who will eat it up, or is he hoping to wake up center and center-right folks who have allowed themselves to ignore or make excuses for publicly pernicious racism far too long? (The phrase “you need to wake up” does get used in the movie, a phrase that has been shouted in many a Spike Lee joint, from Do The Right Thing to School Daze and Chi-Raq. Who does he want to wake up exactly?) And is lampooning and caricaturing white supremacists an effective strategy for depicting them on screen? Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Stanley Kubrick seemed to think so--and a fairly common stance nowadays seems to be that you can’t logic-away racism (it’s fundamentally illogical, rooted either in fear or long-debunked pseudoscience); you have to humiliate it instead. But then there’s the question of how to go about doing that--in the case of people mocking President Trump, it has often devolved into fat-shaming or gay-panic. I know you had some thoughts along those lines, Lydia--how effective or ineffective do you think Lee is here in the way he pokes fun at bigots?
LYDIA: I know it comes across as prickly and unhelpful, but often my first response to the extremely poor depiction of racists is “fuck ‘em,” so in this case, maybe I am the self-identified liberal that’s eating right out of Lee’s hand. However, I don’t think he’s only dismissing Klan members as mere buffoons. It’s not an exactly compassionate look at the kind of people that are drawn in to white supremacist hate movements, but a couple of the characters I thought were so smart and on-the-money to include were the chapter president / recruiter guy, Walter, who Stallworth talks to at first on the phone, as well as one of the hanger-ons, Ivanhoe (apparently), who is like the 70’s equivalent of today’s “neckbeard” (I will acknowledge this character does not get away from fat-shaming).
Walter is very concerned with respectability. He insists that they’re not “The Klan,” they’re “The Organization,” and outwardly denounces the most violent racist as “psycho” (Lee makes sure we all know he secretly agrees, but it’s just not polite to say it out loud). He’s clean cut and friendly, and preys upon people like Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe struck me as the kind of person that today would hide behind the keyboard throwing hate--he’s obnoxious and loud and socially awkward in person, clearly not very successful, and with some encouragement from, say, a friendly alt-right recruiter, he can turn any personal problems or doubts that hold him back into hatred of The Other. Lee does not absolve this personality type of choosing to engage in racist behavior, but he’s not just mocking--I really think he’s showing some material conditions that perpetuates white supremacy. Even for “woke” liberals, I think representing this dynamic is smart, and maybe a shock of recognition for more moderate people not actively thinking about who joins up and how.
Of course, the biggest target of mockery is also one of the most real-life, dangerous people leading the white supremacist movement today: David Duke. What did you think about Topher Grace’s performance?
ANDREW: I love it so much--I think that Topher Grace as David Duke is the most inspired piece of stunt casting since Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in Spring Breakers. His presence ends up accomplishing two things at once. We know him from That 70’s Show as a total dweeb, and we end up looking at him through that filter, which underscores the whole performance and furthers this idea of humiliating these people, making them look pathetic. (This Topher Grace filter is undoubtedly one of the reasons why audiences rejected him as Venom in Spider-Man 3.) But on the other hand, Topher Grace is surprisingly good at playing David Duke as he actually is--a politician: very buttoned-up, cautious about what he says, always concerned with optics, playing the long game, scary. (One conversation, fictional though it may be, suggests that David Duke was very much aware of how the work he was doing in the ‘70s was laying the ground for what could--and did--happen decades later with the election of Donald Trump.) I’m sure we’ll have to talk about spoilers eventually, but it’s worth stating here that eventually Spike Lee shows us footage of the real David Duke--and I think that when audiences who haven’t been following the insidious legitimization of white nationalism over the last few years see this, they’re going to be primed for a freakout thanks to the work done previously by the script and Topher Grace’s performance.
His casting/acting aside, I think it would be a good idea to talk a bit here about one of the major David Duke-centric sequences in BlacKkKlansman, in which the klansmen conduct a baptism (in order to induct Adam Driver’s character, Flip) and then present a screening of The Birth of a Nation. Lee has made responding to that film into a bit of an ongoing project throughout his filmography, and it’s of crucial importance here: the film opens with a monologue from Alec Baldwin that, in part, has The Birth of a Nation projected over Baldwin’s face--and of course, we get that movie screening I was talking about. Lydia--the two of us did a podcast (Cinematary Episode 96) about The Birth of a Nation a few years back, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how BlacKkKlansman utilizes that film as raw material.
LYDIA: Lee is always making explicit the racist links from the past to now. He’s critiqued the racist depictions of African Americans in media before--I’m thinking of the closing montage in Bamboozled, which shouldn’t be spoiled--but here he’s calling out Birth of a Nation specifically. I wish in the episode we’d responded as angrily as Lee does, rather than a bunch of discomfort. That scene where he has the Klansmen (and their women) watch it is both pretty funny and also horrifying. It’s like a pep rally for them--especially the one wife character, who is pretty much banking on the idea of purity of white womanhood to give her own life any meaning.
ANDREW: I really liked the portrayal of that character--Connie--especially her introduction, in which we see her transition from offering baked good to her husband’s klansmen friends (with that kindly Baptist Sunday School southern accent that I’m sure both of us are familiar with) to dropping the N-word and calling for murder without changing her tone of voice at all. Her character is a good reminder that the white women that find validation among hate groups aren’t really valued in the way they think/hope they are.
But to circle back to Birth of a Nation, I had the same reaction that you did to the film screening scene: horror. I think it’s one thing to watch that movie alone and feel uncomfortable--especially if you go in knowing that there’s a film critic-y sense of obligation to appreciate it on a formal level despite the content--and quite another thing to watch it be watched by an audience that eats it up for the content. That’s how that movie should be viewed--like a shitty cam rip of a room full of white supremacists cheering it on.
I also think that Lee is doing something interesting with the way he plays off the formal style of Birth of a Nation. The movie has a reputation of “inventing” crosscutting (even though Lois Weber did it wayyyyy better in Suspense two years earlier) to show the klan rushing in to save the day during the climax. Lee dabbles in sensationalist cross-cutting himself: cutting between David Duke’s crowd chanting “white power!” and a Black student union chanting “black power!” Critic Miriam Bale (whom we both love) has decried this scene, implying that Lee was equating the two ideologies, but I wonder if it’s not too generous to say that Lee might be doing something closer to The Treachery of Images, reminding us that an artwork’s form can very easily manipulate us into believing a falsehood, as The Birth of a Nation notoriously did.
But let’s move on to another cinematic form that Lee puts himself in dialogue with here in BlacKkKlansman--the Blaxploitation film. This movie is set in the 1970s, it has a blurry title card as if it’s being projected on celluloid, it has a hero with an enormous Afro, it has a supremely hummable funk-guitar score, and at one point it even flashes a series of classic Blaxploitation posters up on screen to make damn sure we know what it’s drawing inspiration from. I’m a little less sure what the intent is here, so Lydia, I’m hoping you can enlighten me. What do you think Lee is doing with this genre?
LYDIA: I think Lee picks up the trappings of Blaxploitation here because he knows using a familiar genre will get (white?) butts in seats (to cite Miriam Bale again). Audiences are used to this kind of narrative, and within that space Lee has the freedom to explore the issues close to his heart… but maybe that’s a bit of a trick or cheat. Like you were pondering earlier, who is this movie for? Is someone who sees the poster (or is only expecting a typical, action-y Blaxploitation film) going to be surprised and angry about the political messaging if they’re not already on board, as it were? Or, is he reclaiming the genre, which in the past has typically actually been helmed by white directors, and offering more media metacommentary?
ANDREW: If he’s reclaiming it, he’s certainly doing so with a lot more tact than his longtime rival Quentin Tarantino, who I thought of immediately as that fuzzed-out title card came on screen. For Lee, I don’t think he thinks of historical atrocities as bulletproof buy-in for a revenge fantasy--I think he feels its real-world impact on the present much more strongly. As for your first question--will a broad audience go to see this based on the marketing--I guess we’ll know for sure by the time this essay gets published. I gotta say, I’m a little skeptical about people turning out en masse for a movie with a title and poster like this--I imagine that Trump supporters will expect it to be propaganda and refuse to go, and some left-leaning folks might worry it will be too laissez-faire about such potentially problematic content. I honestly don’t know.
What I know for sure is that for too long, “social issue movies” have been locked in the past, almost implying that because the characters overcome social injustice within the bounds of their narratives, that racism (+ sexism, homophobia, whatever) is over because we see it get “solved” for a character we care about in, say, 12 Years a Slave, 42, The Help (*vomits a little*), or, more recently, Hidden Figures. What BlacKkKlansman does so expertly, in my opinion (he says, almost 3,000 words into this piece), is bridge the gap between the historical drama and the contemporary woke indie (Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, the upcoming The Hate U Give, etc.).
For a good portion of its running time, BlacKkKlansman very much looks and feels like a traditional biopic like the ones I mentioned--so much so that many critics have said it feels anonymous, lacking the fire of previous Lee joints. But I think that’s a mode that Lee is choosing to operate in; he’s a master stylist in a way we don’t think about often--able to adapt his style for any given context. Here, he play-acts in the robes of the safe, prestigey historical drama, but he gets far more specific than anyone before him has about how precisely these players and ideas have impacted the present. I mean, he makes the movie about David Duke, for crying out loud, who every politically-informed viewer is going to recognize from that news story about him endorsing Trump, then Trump playing dumb and refusing to disavow. And perhaps there’s never been a better time-warp to the present day than what the film does with its final rug-pull that we’ve been dancing around until now--but I imagine that anyone who has read all 3,000+ words of this review has seen the movie already, so I suppose it’s safe to get into spoilers. Lydia, how did you respond to the ending?
*** spoilers incoming ***
LYDIA: I had mentioned earlier the device of Bamboozled’s closing montage, which is a slap in the face of ugly (morally), racist depictions. The device Lee uses here is similar--after a rather neat and satisfying wrap-up to the investigation (and a terrifically funny final phone call with Duke), suddenly we’re confronted with the final image of a cross burning across from Stallworth’s house and a smashcut to 2017 Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally (Lee has released his movie on the anniversary). It’s an effective “fuck you” to refuse to end your biopic on a false happy note, and a chilling reminder that these people never went away, are not harmless, have--in fact--murdered a woman, and need to be addressed. Whether or not we can shame them away is an open question, but certainly ignoring them isn’t the answer (nor, “both siding” them). I sobbed.
ANDREW: I did too. And I knew that ending was coming, having looked at too many reviews written after the movie premiered at Cannes. I think that if I would have gone in blind, it would have affected me even more strongly (my wife Jessy was sobbing immediately) but it definitely still hit me, and it did so all at once: precisely at the moment in the Charlottesville footage when a black woman doubles-over, with her head in her hands, and screams. Lee’s movies have always been good at evoking a sense of urgent, indignant anger (the “Wake up!” at the end of School Daze, and riot at the end of Do the Right Thing, the “This is an Emergency” title card in Chi-Raq, the Bamboozled montage you mentioned), but that moment might be the most panic-inducing for me. All of his movies have been responding to real world phenomena, of course, but it’s a such visceral experience to be confronted with the real world within the cinematic/historical context of BlacKkKlansman. That scream is something else; it’s a scream of disbelief--a scream that says “how can this be real?” I feel like screaming that question all the time, and I’m glad that BlacKkKlansman dares to answer it.