BlackkKlansman tells the “base on a true story” story of the first African-American police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), as he works his way up to the intelligence unit in Colorado. There Stallworth makes contact with the KKK, forming a connection as he starts to spy on the organization. His partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), becomes Stallworth’s persona in person as they infiltrate the Klan and eventually stop a domestic terror attack.
We Need to Talk about Spike
I have a rich history with Spike Lee. He came on the scene at a time when there were no African-American directors. He not only made incredibly realized films that came with their own stylistic intricacies and smacked of an auteur, but they were Black films. They were movies by a black man, for a black audience, about being a black man or woman in American. Lee, like documentarian Michael Moore, didn’t try to sanitize his films of political bias, but rather he leaned into it. Also similar to Moore, his films were pertinent. They were timely. They wrestled with issues of the right now. The most famous example of this was Do the Right Thing’s portrayal of how a race riot over police brutality could happen. Do the Right Thing came out three years BEFORE the Rodney King Riots. Like I said, Pertinent.
That was old Spike Lee. New Spike Lee is a little bit different. New Spike Lee directs NBA2k games. He shoots Kat Williams stand up specials. Eminem music videos. He desecrates on the source material of Oldboy in the American remake. Worse, he pull increasingly dubious political stunt such as tweeting out George Zimmerman’s(Trayvon Martin’s shooter) address to enraged activists looking to “bring justice.”
I am sympathetic to Lee’s politics. I appreciate his perspective. Spike Lee will always have his place in film history. Do the Right Thing is a top 100 film. I was blown away by Chi-Raq. The complexity of the project. The pertinence of the topic. The realness of the delivery. That film did not pull punches. I hoped Lee was in resurgence. The left movement against systematic oppression and governmental tyranny needs leadership. We need role models. We need a voice. Unfortunately, old Spike Lee did not show up. He did not take his role or responsibility with the care needed this these polarizing times. BlackkKlansman is not a film for these times.
It’s the Rhetoric, Stupid
I avoided seeing this movie for a long time. I almost missed it in theatres entirely. In fact, I wanted to skip it all together. I double backed for two reasons. 1) It’s been getting a lot of acclaim in some critical circles and more importantly in some political circles. 2) I want to make a definitive top 10 list at the end of this year and based on the buzz that list would be incomplete if I overlooked this film. BlackkKlansman met my expectations in every single way and I avoided it for the right reasons. This movie unsettled me.
There is a thread forming in the first few acts of this film that I find tremendously powerful. Lee is attempting to draw some parallels between the KKK onscreen and the Black liberation movement. Lee dances an incredibly delicate dance. Clearly the KKK evil. It is the ugliest, most rotten mutation of white desire to maintain the status quo. Lee makes some powerful statements about that desire to maintain. He argues its forgone conclusion is White Supremacy. However, in the first two acts of the film Lee is also fair. He believes the pursuit of maintaining is a pursuit of White Sumpremacy, but he makes efforts to draw distinction between the Klansmen and the average joe.
The moral clarity that comes from the simple statement “the KKK is bad” is match equally by the statement “the movement push for equality of African Americans is good.” Racial equality is good. Necessary. Long overdue. Morally righteous. Lee is extremely fair on this front too. Stallworth’s girlfriend’s view of cops generally is pretty dismissive and closeminded. We see representations of good and bad cops in this film, not to mention Stallworth using his position as a cop for the direct cause of his people. All of this gets completely invalidated and overlooked by his girlfriend who only sees the enemy. Lee carves out a critique of the rhetoric on both sides. His danced is nuanced and calculated.
One side is good. One side as bad. Both sides have extreme elements. Both extremes are bad. Their badness is not the same and the ramifications of their rhetoric is different. This dance is beautifully walked for the first 2/3 of the film and had Lee brought this to the finish line he would have delivered another masterpiece. Another pertinent film for our times.
Laziness or Propaganda the Outcome is the Same
David Duke is an incredibly important figure for our political times. Trump is the White Supremacist savior for the alt right. In rhetoric, in policy, in appointments, in attitude. BlackkKlansman early on lays out the life’s work of David Duke. Duke worked hard to bring the organization into the modern era. No more hoods. No more violence. Duke, in this movie did not want to portray himself as the Grand Wizard but rather “National Director.” The sinister plot of Duke was to infiltrate the political psyche of America like a Trojan horse. Act the right way and look the part and push ethno-nationalist agenda more subtly with cleaned up rhetoric. In doing this he could silently take over. Some would argue Trump is the full realization of this strategy. I wanted Spike Lee to thread this need. To hit home the point that we need to be looking for wolves is sheep’s clothing. We need to be afraid of dog whistles and toxic ideas that threaten to rot the fabric of our republic. This is the new KKK. The NeoNazi.
Instead we get a Hollywood KKK. They’re dumb, rednecked, uneducated, white folks that, according to Lee, have no sympathetic qualities. Knowing Lee’s political leanings and more recent activity it’s not surprising to me that this is how they ended up, but it’s immensely disappointing. I don’t need to parade out the 3 months of think pieces and hand wringing that liberal American wrote about the “Trump Voter” to argue how dangerous this caricature view is. This representation plays right into the fake news, Hollywood Elite narrative the Trump era has been building. No one that has ever watched Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh is going to watch this movie. If they do they’re going to walk out with their views more solidified and less willing to talk to the other side. This read of Blackkklansman gives Lee the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was just laziness that lead to this depiction.
There’s a lot to be afraid of right now. A lot. Extremist White Supremacist policies are becoming mainstream in the Trump Republican party. That being said there is not an imminent existential threat to the safety of minorities in this country. Charlottesville was an ugly reawakening of a sleeping giant in this country. American was forced to face some truths. We have a lot more darkness and hatred in our country than we are willing to admit. A year later the rally was cancelled. Voter turnout is through the room. America has broadly rejected what the KKK and the Neonazi represent.
Lee ends his film with footage from Charlottesville. Right after we’ve seen the KKK attempt a political assassination with a bomb targeting a black activist, we seen footage of the modern-day white supremacy movement. We watch the actually car attack where Heather Heyer was brutally murdered. This is where BlackkKlansman starts to leave a laziness read and move towards unabashed propaganda. The modern equivalent to black liberation movement we see in this movie is already looking for a fight. Antifa has already committed several acts of violence throughout the country in the name of justice. Anyone who seems this movie who is sympathetic to the cause is going to radicalized. More open to violence (characters literally advocate cop killing in this movie). BlackkKlansman is radicalizing both sides. The right will view it as pure propaganda. The radical left will view is as a further permission structure down an extreme path. Lee has identified a tinderbox, doused it in kerosene, and mindlessly flicked a cigarette butt in its general direction.
A younger more radical version of me would stand behind this film in principal. I still think I wouldn’t like it. I would idealistically think its needs to exist and be heard out. I have seen the danger of letting ideas like this fester and grow. I don’t think Spike Lee is the left’s James O’Keafe. Or Richard Spencer. Or Alex Jones. BalckkKlansman is a step along this path however. In an era where it is abundantly clear that words have consequence and lead to actions I feel the need to outright reject this film and the ideas it represents. I recommend avoiding this movie completely. It will only contribute to further dividing and radicalizing us as a people.