Spike Lee’s latest directorial effort isn’t subtle, but then with a title like BlackKklansman, you wouldn’t expect it to be. While it ostensibly tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black undercover detective who infiltrates the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Lee has greater ambitions than a simple biopic. Lee seeks to connect his film to the continuum of media surrounding the conversation about the murder of black people at the hands of white institutions, beginning with lynchings and up through murders by the police and white supremacists.
Now, Lee is no stranger to the, at best contentious, relationship that black people have with law enforcement. His own early-career masterpiece Do the Right Thing, is still hailed as one of the marquee depictions of the subject, and the synecdoche of Radio Raheem is one that hasn’t lost an ounce of potency in the nearly thirty years since its premiere. BlackKklansman, however, has larger goals. While Do the Right Thing describes a specific, discreet instance that can be made universal, Klansman, acts more as a meta-commentary lamenting not only the longevity and resilience of the problem, despite black people’s best efforts, but also the role that cinema has to play in the way that black people are depicted and therefore treated.
The film opens with Alec Baldwin (SNL’s Donald Trump, lest we forget) portraying a fictional white supremacist recording a propaganda video. This comes before Spike Lee’s disclaimer that what we’re seeing is based on “some fo real, fo real shit” and serves to admit Lee’s ulterior motive before we’ve begun in earnest.
The story itself concerns Officer Ron Stallworth’s (played excellently by John David Washington) first year with the Colorado Springs Police Department. He’s torn between his love of police work (both a respectable job and an outlet for his superior talents) and his sympathies for his own people. Laura Harrier represents the latter, as Patrice, a black radical and leader of the Colorado College Black Student Union. Rounding out the leads is Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop who pretends to be Ron Stallworth in person after the real Ron bites off more than he can chew when he sets up a meeting with the Klan.
From there, things escalate, as Stallworth’s acceptance into the ranks of the KKK coincides with the arrival of David Duke (Topher Grace of That 70’s Show fame), and a plot by a splinter cell of the Klan to attack the Student Union. Stallworth takes on ever-increasing risks, even when the department (Zimmerman included, at times) saddles him with more and more burdensome obstacles.
I’d be remiss not to mention BlackKklansman’s context in the greater cinematic landscape this summer. Preceding it are Boots Riley’s communist satire, Sorry to Bother You, and Daveed Diggs’ street poem, Blindspotting. I don’t wish to compare these films to Klansman, both men are from the Bay Area and the films are about that nearly as much as race relations, but they do all share a curious similarity: the voice.
Sorry to Bother You uses a so-called white voice to allow its protagonists to get ahead in business. Blindspotting elevates its dialogue to rapped poetry when it wants to deliver its hardest hitting punches. BlackKklansman too focuses on the voice. Stallworth’s ability to switch between Standard American English (SAE) and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the key to his investigation. Without being able to ‘pass’ as white on the phone, he’d never have gotten his (or Zimmerman’s as the case may be) foot in the door.
The voice, in both Sorry to Bother You and BlackKklansman is mediated by a telephone. The inability of a white audience to know who is on the other end of the line allows black protagonists to fool their interlocutors by playing on their ill-informed prejudices. Whiteness itself, then, is revealed to be not an inborn set of traits or skills, but an affectation easily imitated at a distance. Blindspotting shows us what happens when this imitation goes the other way. Rafael Casal’s Miles may speak AAVE, but he’s never able to meaningfully access what it means to be black, symbolized by his inability to say the n-word. Whiteness may be affect, but the experience of black bodies is all too real.
This is why double-consciousness gets a shout-out in BlackKklansman, Lee knows all too well what Stallworth is going through. The first black man to succeed at his level in an all-white industry; Lee may have a little bit of experience with that. The film is also drenched in a certain air of Blaxploitation for this same reason. For both Stallworth and Lee, the films act as a beacon, showing them the way to be righteous, but falling short when faced with real-world complications. The film never resolves Stallworth’s dilemma between police work and black liberation, choosing instead to fade out his story into Blaxploitative ellipsis. In reality, Stallworth continued as a detective until he retired. I get why Spike might have left that part out.
What he doesn’t leave out, however, is space. This film is messy. Shots go on too long, certain effects stick out like a sore thumb, and the climax has a cheese to it that you don’t often see in modern biopics. The film calls attention to itself qua film. A certain sequence (with a wonderful Harry Belafonte cameo) contrasts the real-life pictures of lynching with footage from Birth of a Nation, and narration explicates the latter’s impact on the former.
At various times in Klansman, the dialogue echoes current rhetoric from the far-right. Some of this is verisimilitudinous, such as the reminder that “America First” was a slogan originated by the Klan, but most of it is anachronism, reminding us that current racial violence is descended from the same ideology. This is all groundwork laid for a finale depicting the real-world violence and rhetoric at play in the present, using actual archival footage from Charlottesville and Trump’s defense of the same. Lee’s message is clear and twofold. First, representation and depiction color how black people are seen by white people, and second, the law– at its best– takes down a few white supremacist figureheads. More commonly, however, it helps them.
BlackKklansman would never win a prize for subtlety, but we aren’t living in subtle times. Lee may have become a bit more obvious about the morals of his films in later years, but when you want to knock something down, you don’t need precision. You need a sledgehammer.