Or, How a Black Cop Pulls One Over on the Klan.
Genre: A Spike Lee Joint (and a crime comedy/drama)
Why I watched: I always try to watch the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards air, so I rented BlacKkKlansman last weekend. (I also saw The Favourite on Saturday, which was very weird. But that's a story for another day!) It's hard to believe that not only has Spike Lee never won an Oscar for Best Director, he hasn't even been nominated for one—even though he's directed 30 films in nearly 30 years, including his most famous feature Do The Right Thing (1990; on Starz). If he wins on Sunday night, he'll be the first black person in the history of the Academy Awards to do so.
You might also like: If you're a fan of Spike Lee/film history/good movies, you should catch the director's first feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986; on Netflix). It's fascinating to see where Lee came from, and the marked differences between his original filmmaking style and now. But you'll notice some similarities as well. For instance, Lee's penchant for subtlety is still just as nonexistent as it ever was!
You should know something before you see Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman: It’s based on “Some Fo’ Real, Fo’ Real Shit,” as the title credits announce. This is the true-ish story of how black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by contacting “the organization” over the phone. Of course, this will only take him so far given that he is, well, black. So, he convinces another cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver)—who is Jewish, and just as loathed by white supremacists—to go undercover to attend the Klan’s in-person meetings. What follows is a mainstream (compared to Lee’s usual fare) takedown of skinhead America. If the details don’t all add up, or if things seem implausible, well... don’t let that get in the way of your enjoying the film!
While Stallworth finds an ally in Zimmerman, he notes that his coworker is concealing his difference to avoid the negative treatment that Stallworth must unavoidably face. (“You’re passing,” Stallworth says.) But Zimmerman isn’t the only one playing a role; like many undercover stories, BlacKkKlansman is all about performance. Stallworth pretends to be a bigoted kindred spirit when he gets close to KKK members, including a young David Duke (Topher Grace). And when he’s asked to go undercover to a Black Student Union meeting, he pretends to agree with the down-with-the-police philosophy of the chapter president Patrice (Laura Harrier). Patrice and Stallworth have some of the more nuanced conversations of the film, about race relations and how to reform racist institutions. Stallworth, expectedly, argues that getting inside a hostile organization is the best way to affect change. Patrice lobbies for more of a burn-it-all-down approach. In the end, BlacKkKlansman argues that the answer is somewhere in the middle.
One of the most hostile organizations, the film suggests, is the American film industry. Lee’s movie starts with a clip of Gone With the Wind (1939), as Scarlett O’Hara runs across a sea of downed troops who sacrificed their lives for the Confederacy. BlacKkKlansman’s opening then abruptly cuts to a segregationist (played by Alec Baldwin) filming a propaganda picture in front of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s extremely racist 1915 film. The montage places these three movies within a movie in conversation with one another, as if to say, Racist films are racist propaganda. (Lee might, conversely, be accused of anti-racist propaganda. The critique here is of racism, not film’s influential ability.) “At NYU,” Lee said in 2016, “they showed [Birth of a Nation], talked about the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with, well they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched.” In one of the most powerful scenes of BlacKkKlansman, Lee juxtaposes the KKK screening of Birth of a Nation with a consciousness raising meeting of the Black Student Union. Images of lynching overlap with those from Griffith’s “innovative” film. We should be more careful what movies we choose to watch, and what movies we award with praise.
As one reviewer noted, the film never explicitly mentions that it's set in 1979. The costumes feel dated, recalling the blaxploitation films of the seventies. Ron Stallworth is the first black man hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. And David Duke looks like he's in his thirties. Although we have a sense of the story's past-ness, no title card ever clues us into a specific era. And when Lee closes BlacKkKlansman with his trademark archival footage, he pulls from the recent past in the form of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The America depicted by Lee's film—where white supremacists complain openly about minorities, and where modern-day alt-right catchphrases reverberate through the screenplay—bleeds out of the past and into the present.
BlacKkKlansman has been called heavy-handed, entertaining, incoherent, factually inaccurate, bizarre, and brilliant. In truth, it’s all of those things. The film isn’t always logical, because racism isn’t logical. (Although it is, Lee points out, intensely methodical.) The film is not a biopic of Ron Stallworth, and so that facts were changed to make for comedic or entertainment factors doesn’t really matter much. (Flip Zimmerman, for example, was not Jewish.) Yeah, it’s heavy-handed; this is Lee’s project, and it lobbies for his ideology: This film is an attack on institutionalized racism.
In his review, David Edelstein wrote, “Lee wants audiences to laugh their black/Jewish/liberal asses off. As for those without black/Jewish/liberal asses, well, it’s hard to say what they’ll do.” We'll have to wait to see what side of the American Academy of Motion Pictures falls on.
The Oscars airs Sunday, February 24, at 8:00 PM EST/5:00 PM PST, on ABC.