“BlacKkKlansman”: Man vs. Meaning
Gone With The Wind. D.W. Griffith. A cop thriller mixed with a cop brutality drama. The Holocaust. The political institutionalization of rightwing reactionaries. Charlottesville. Donald J. Trump. Split consciousness. Passing in America.
“He’s trying to do too much,” many-a reasonable viewer could say of Spike Lee and his new film BlacKkKlansman. But Spike Lee doesn’t try to do too much. He lives and breathes too much in a world that many of us would agree is just too much. I haven’t been able to think about Spike Lee not in terms of how he uses “excess” in cinema since we had Dr. Todd McGowan on the show a couple years back. In his book, McGowan smartly characterizes many of Lee’s protagonists as driven by emotions and forces too powerful for them to control. A lot of those forces go by the name “America” or “being black in America.” His protagonists invariably ride those forces into a wall of violence or disillusionment or martyrdom. It is not always pretty to watch; it is always provoking in some way.
This is all to say, don’t walk into BlacKkKlansman thinking it’ll be woke American Hustle or something. It is not. It also might be Spike Lee’s sixth or seventh best movie, not a crackling return to peak form so much as the Spike we deserve right now: bold, angry, in command, at times excessively patient, and reminding us there are no easy answers.
Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows rookie cop Ron Stallworth, played by newcomer John David Washington (you might’ve heard of his dad though; Spike Lee has), going undercover. The year is 1979, and Stallworth is breaking the color line at the Colorado Springs Police Department. After being initially assigned to monitor a local gathering of black students attending a Kwame Ture (formely Stokely Carmichael) speaking event, Stallworth decides equal opportunity infiltration is fair play. He gets in with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, only he does so on the phone and with his real name, necessitating a partnership with fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Experienced and laconic, Flip stands in for Stallworth when it comes time to actually meet up with the hate-mongering desert rednecks.
Ron and Flip’s relationship is one of partners, of police who don’t always agree on what it means to do police work, of a veteran and a rookie, and quite explicitly of a Jewish and black man investigating a hate group mobilizing against both their communities and histories. On an intellectual level, their bond is layered and thought-provoking. On a personal level, well, this isn’t Spike at his best when it comes to close-up relationships. A pretty rushed scene reminiscent of Do The Right Thing’s Pino ironically appreciating black culture, but notably not his black neighbors, lets us know Flip is down enough with Ron. The movie also pushes together Ron and Patrice (played quite well by Laura Harrier) for a complicated but tame romance. As cop and black leftist, they too are more sounding boards for cultural conflict than believable friends or lovers.
In my mind, this shortcoming has a lot to do with Lee investing less in who characters are and more in what they mean. A deficiency in the former category isn’t helped by John David Washington delivering an opaque, almost goofy performance. There’s a very watchable glee to most everything he does — from fucking with David Duke (Topher Grace) on the telephone, to a series of karate movies he rips off to vent after dealing with a racist coworker. Again, that chipper attitude works well when you think about the kind of man who would become the first black cop in a small town in the 1970s, but it doesn’t result in a particular dimensional performance line to line or scene to scene. John David may be Denzel’s son, but this character feels more like one Lee himself would’ve played back in the day: sharply comic, revealing of a community, not a particularly adept emotional vessel.
This is a literary balance that’s been unfolding in Lee’s movies since the ‘80s: characters mean more than they are. But it’s hard to remember the literal side of things playing out quite so clunkily when you have a built-in premise that should carry itself right off. BlacKkKlansman manages not to be thrilling for quite a long time. Some of the things in the way are artistic — a 20-minute back and forth between Harry Belafonte describing a lynching and David Duke knighting the Colorado Springs chapter’s new members. And some are just inattentive filmmaking. There’s a point at which a known Klansman shows up at Ron’s door, and Ron appears not to recognize him even though he’s been surveilling the knocker the whole movie. The lack of a coherent crescendo makes this cat-and-mouse game halt all too often.
But, and it’s a big but, Spike Lee the director of theme has rarely hit so hard. The 61-year-old filmmaker is mad again, mad in the way you could feel when he made Jake Shuttlesworth punch someone in the throat, mad in the way he was when Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem stormed Sal’s Pizzeria to protest.
That list of topics at the top of this review? Lee has trenchant points to make about most of the items — perhaps most impressively, that underneath every political attempt to disenfranchise Black Americans is a rabidity, a violence, a poison seed that the Topher Grace-ing of the KKK can’t hide. Underneath the branding that is MAGA, there’s evil plowing a car into a crowd of protestors.
Lee burst onto the American filmmaking scene during the Reagan years, a time when the mood of the average white American was high, when patriotism might’ve seemed simple enough: Miracle at Lake Placid, Hulk Hogan, Bon Jovi. In the age of children in cages, “shithole countries,” birther movements, Proud Boys, few people need to be reminded of 2018’s racial stakes, but many don’t want to be. In response, Lee powerfully illustrates a continuity of blood and fire. The fault lines of American racism have always been clear to those forced to live on them.
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