BlacKkKlansman (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Nov/180

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Confident and determined, Ron Stallworth is ready to prove his mettle as the first black officer of the Colorado Springs police department. His opportunity comes when a casual inquiry into an advertisement from the Ku Klux Klan pulls him into a web of connections he didn't imagine. Spike Lee directs BlacKkKlansman, with the screenplay written by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott, and stars John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier.

Why should we trust anything we see in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman? The narrative comes from a memoir penned by Ron Stallworth, revealed decades after the events of both film and memoir, and is poised to comment directly on our slide into white fascism. Spike addresses any suspicion with a pair of parallel stories told by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) and pseudoscience peddled by the vile David Duke (an excellent Topher Grace). On the side of Mr. Turner we listen and watch a crowd of black humans coming into themselves over oral tradition, settling on twin philosophies of never again and power to all people. Duke begs credibility in the form of a Nobel Peace Prize winner's eugenic research that conclusively proves white humans are better than black.

The oral tradition is backed by historical fact and bolstered through community uplift. Spike's closing scenes, which shocked me even with advance warning to emotionally guard myself, reinforce that oral tradition as the warning constantly echoed but rarely heeded. Black stories have warned us of the evil behind phrenology and eugenics which roll right into today's incel community embrace of skull size as a determination of what your standing will be in life.

What is it going to take to get us to listen?That's a question neither Spike nor BlacKkKlansman nor (I suspect) Ron Stallworth have the answers for. But this isn't the kind of narrative that needs to supply answers to questions Spike has been addressing for years in images and stories so powerful that they've entered into the oral tradition Mr. Turner shares in BlacKkKlansman. Spike is not one to rest on his past successes while remaining secure in the artistic skill they are crafted from, and it's Spike's confidence that drives BlacKkKlansman to address his own failures as an artist while not making it easy for the audience to process its many pleasures.

One gorgeous moment of black faces rubbing into one another, like they're both seeing themselves for the first time and recognizing that struggle in others, comes with a violent disruption from Patrolman Landers (Frederick Weller) sexually assaulting campus leader Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). The moment serves as a rebuke of the sort of "aren't we all humans" excuse to wave away inhumanity as seen in a similar patrolman scene in Paul Haggis' Crash. But it's also a rebuke to Spike's own filmography as the scene goes on to a dance party and celebration of humanity that was excessively masculine in Malcolm X. Now it's not so much making up for the criticism Spike's received for his often shallow way of portraying women as it is acknowledging the truth that's been there all along. Spike pays further attention to his past weakness with a charming date between Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice where their walk in an idyllic park is intercut with images from black cinematic history as they debate what those icons mean to one another. This kind of open dialogue between what black men and women want hasn't been as focused on since the women's group scene in Jungle Fever.

Ditto the overblown reputation of, though sometimes present, antisemitic undertones in some of Spike's characters. Spike has invoked Louis Farrakhan in his earlier films not as endorsement but as a peek into different characters' passions.  Get on the Bus handled it directly but clunkily in a conversation between one black and one Jewish bus driver.  Spike's understanding of antisemitism has grown more nuanced and provides Adam Driver, who plays Ron's partner Flip Zimmerman, one of BlacKkKlansman's most powerful scenes where Driver swallows hard in closeup looking at a Klan membership card and barely gets out his fears on what it means to be Jewish - something he took for granted since he always "passed" as white. Driver similarly impresses in a chilling sequence where he goes on about the beauty of the Holocaust to "pass" to the satisfaction of Klansmen.Doing the labor to "pass" not just as a racial subset but as reliable, trustworthy, worth taken seriously, and so on, forms a surprising sympathy with people who adopt white supremacist viewpoints. There's an alternately haunting and touching scene where the equally racist Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson) confesses to her Klansman husband Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) that his love and the thought of killing black people gives her direction and purpose. Spike films this romantically, the two cuddling in bed sharing their bodies in a tight embrace, and recognizes how blind hate of another can fill in the cracks of relationships that would otherwise fall apart without that hate. It's a tricky sequence because it doesn't excuse while it explains, and Connie's arc within the violent goals of the Klan shows white women just as capable as men of carrying out stunning acts of hate.

How men and women can contribute to or learn to fight back against hate is an easier cultural question to answer. Spike rightly challenges the legacy of Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation (the latter of which led to Broken Blossoms, possibly the earliest experiment in liberal-leaning apologia) by leading us to interrogate their place in cinematic history (though this was done more directly and powerfully in Bamboozled). The more difficult question, and the one where Spike comes close to making a radical point then backs down, is what can be done about racist institutions that protect their own. In his most stunning double-dolly shot to-date, Ron and Patrice are forced toward the hate that remains just outside their doorstep as the system continued marching onward to protect those same violent racists that killed in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

Even if his points are garbled leaning toward crazy (lookin' at you She Hate Me), Spike rarely shies away from making one. BlacKkKlansman whiffs on the police maybe because the idea of systematically dismantling our entire idea of law enforcement is too much. Or maybe he's too tired thinking about that revolution always talked about but yet to arrive. I don't blame or care to criticize him further here, because I'm exhausted too but can barely think of where to start. What I can say for certain is BlacKkKlansman comes from Spike in the same year as Pass Over, both films that continue to prove he is the most restless American director still active today, and that he'll entertain you so long as you can take the bitter reality surrounding the beauty.

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BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by Spike Lee.
Screenplay written by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott.
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier.

Posted by Andrew

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