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Non-Review Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is an American tragicomedy.

The past few years have seen a heightening of reality, a blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, an intrusion of the unreal into the real world. The President of the United States is effectively a reality television star, and is running the country as some sort of grotesque reality television show. “Truth is not truth”, to quote one administration figure, while another has peddled in the idea of “alternative facts” while alluding to a horrific terrorist attack that simply never happened while other supporters of the administration insist that other horrific events did not happen.

The two Ronnies.

With all of that going on in the background, soaking into the zeitgeist, BlacKkKlansman feels very much like a movie for the moment. It is – to quote the introductory text – “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”, taking its inspiration from a memoir written by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth. However, it is also filtered through the hyperstylised cartoonish lens of a blackploitation buddy comedy, with Lee taking every opportunity to remind his audience that they are watching a piece of pop culture.

The premise of the film is so absurd that it’s almost impossible to play it as anything but comedy. The first black police officer in Colorado Springs launches an undercover sting on the KKK, using his own name to infiltrate the organisation through the telephone. Working with a fellow white police officer, this ambitious young go-getter manages to manoeuvre his way to the top of the organisation, fooling even the Grand Wizard himself. It’s a ridiculous story, one that seems inherently unreal. Even the name – “Stallworth” – sounds like something from a dimestore paperback.

Hitting all its marks.

Of course, in this era of unreality, it is entirely real. Indeed, the power of BlacKkKlansman comes crashing down on the audience in the final moments, when Lee brushes aside the heavy-handed references to contemporary politics that play through the narrative for something that is much more tangible and real, serving to throw the entire grim joke of the film into stark relief, suggesting that so much of the awkward squirming and ridiculous twists are all the foundation of the horror show through the audience are living.

BlacKkKlansman laughs in the face of horror and brutality. But only because the alternative is to cry.

The historical record.

BlacKkKlansman always understands the seriousness with which this material should be addressed. The basic premise of the movie – a black police officer going undercover in the Ku Klux Klan – is ridiculous, but the horror of the institution of American racism is real. In fact, the film seems to be in constant conversation about that level of seriousness, and how best to explore these potent themes through art and storytelling.

Even when it is darkly funny, BlacKkKlansman is still unsettling. The film opens with a fake right-wing documentary warning Americans about the dangers that “integration” and “miscegenation” pose to white identity within the United States. The blustering right-wing filmmaker is comical in his ineptitude; struggling to read cue cards, sneezing in the middle of his delivery, tripping over words, asking for prompts. However, in never makes what he is actually saying any less horrifying.

“So, Adam, you’re telling me you don’t have a beloved actor relative? Not like a father or anything?”
“How about a brother?”

The investigation at the centre of the film is driven by Ron Stallworth, a character whose enthusiasm and zeal sustains the movie across its runtime, conveyed through the easy charm of John David Washington. On the surface, Stallworth is drawn relatively broadly, introduced toying with his impressive afro and prone to practice kung-fu with his own sound effects when nobody is watching. There is a sense that Stallworth is energetic and simply looking for a direction in which he might channel that energy; he wants to work a case, and the KKK almost present themselves to him.

However, it is always clear that there is something simmering underneath Stallworth’s cool and collected exterior. Listening to an impassioned speech from a former Black Panther, Stallworth is genuinely affected; his eyes are genuinely opened; it’s implied that his focus on the Ku Klux Klan is an attempt to shift law enforcement’s gaze away from “black radicalism.” In a rare emotionally charged moment with a fellow police officer who is assisting with the undercover sting operation, he demands, “Doesn’t that piss you off?” It clearly pisses him off, beneath his practiced calm.

Operating bedsheets to the wind.

Indeed, the climax within BlacKkKlansman is harrowing even amid the black comedy. Repeatedly throughout the film, Spike Lee pointedly parallels and juxtaposes “white power” and “black power”, as if to put paid to the false equivalence of “both sides” rhetoric; “black power” is a necessary movement to organise in the face of systemic racial oppression, while “white power” is about solidifying and cementing that racial oppression. At various points in the film, meetings are played against one another; following sequentially or even cut.

One particularly effective sequence cuts between a gathering of young black students listening to a fictional veteran of the movement Jerome Turner, played by real-life veteran of the movement Harry Bealfonte to increase the sense that reality is being folded in on itself, and an induction ceremony into the Ku Klux Klan hosted by real-life Grand Wizard (or National Director) David Duke, played by actor Topher Grace. Turner offers a vivid and horrifying account of a lynching that took place during the First World War, a haunting narrative drawn from history.

Dialing it back.

However, within that, BlacKkKlansman seems to almost justify its existence. Turner explains that the mobs brutality was inspired by the release the previous year of Birth of a Nation, which he describes using the anachronistic term “blockbuster” for the audience at home rather than for the audience in the room with him. Turner explains that the release of Birth of a Nation had effectively led to the “rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.” Sure enough, the film cuts to the contemporary Ku Klux Klan watching Birth of a Nation with friends and relatives.

The power of popular culture a means to influence discussion and debate simmers through BlacKkKlansman. The opening scenes of the film are drawn specifically from Gone with the Wind, a movie with a complicated legacy to say the least. The movie then cuts to a fake documentary presented by a fake demagogue. Later in the film, David Duke talks about how his own childhood was informed by Gone with the Wind, talking about his own African American nannie. “She was my Hattie McDaniel.” These films and stories have power.

Put up your Dukes.

This idea comes up again and again over the course of the film. On a date with a young college radical, Ron debates the merits of blaxploitation. A long single take of the characters walking along a boardwalk is intercut with shots of the posters of these iconic films, as the characters debate the relative merits of icons like Shaft and Superfly. There is a sense in which these kinds of films exist to construct their own narratives, to reclaim the story of the United States from those who insist that it must be told from a distinctly white perspective.

This is perhaps BlacKkKlansman arguing for its own merits. Lee consciously evokes blaxploitation in the way that he tells this story. It is perhaps most apparent in Terence Blanchard’s score, which is built around permutations of the kind of classic heroic theme that audiences rarely hear these days, a powerful electric guitar presenting Ron Stallworth as a hero for the modern day, a decent and hardworking police officer who takes his oath to protect and serve literally.

Split the difference.

Lee repeatedly reminds his audience that they are watching a film. Telephone conversations are shot at extreme Dutch angles. Split screen is repeatedly employed to allow the two sides of these conversations to be heard at once. The camera is constantly moving and gliding, even when capturing mundane meet-and-greets near dilapidated water features. Inserts present important information to the audience. Then there are the iconic Spike Lee markers, such as a shot of characters on a dolly, gliding down a hall.

Even the film’s setting seems broad and elastic. The story is nominally set in 1978 and 1979, to overlap with the events of the book that inspired it. However, there are several sequences in which campaign posters from “Nixon/Agnew” can clearly be seen in the background, evoking the 1972 election. There is a sense that the world of BlacKkKlansman is a hazily drawn past, one constructed from memory and reflection rather than the historical record.

“This is all MAGA-relevant.”

After all, the script repeatedly draws attention to its own relevance to the modern world in a way that is hardly subtle or graceful. On the phone, David Duke mangles the catchphrase, “Make America Great Again.” In person, he awkwardly rambles his way around to “America First!” When Stallworth laughs at the idea of Duke’s efforts to take racism mainstream, and rejects the idea that somebody with Duke’s beliefs could ever hold public office, a white superior observes, “For a black man, you sure are naive.”

This is all very on the nose, but it works to emphasise the fact that this is ultimately just a story. Indeed, all of this works so effectively that the smash into reality at the end of the film is all the more jarring. Lee juxtaposes this obviously fictionalised and stylised account of real events with actual footage of real events that it would have been impossible to imagine; neo-Nazis marching openly on American streets, a terrorist attack on peaceful protestors renouncing racism, the President of the United States insisting on a moral equivalence between racists and non-racists.

A close call.

BlacKkKlansman suggests there’s almost something idealised in its true story about buffoonish racists that are handily outwitted by a single policeman with one stunningly clever idea. There is a sense that the story presented by BlacKkKlansman is the way that we fictionalise history, that we turn reality into stories to reassure us and to comfort us. BlacKkKlansman is an angry and righteous and harrowing film; it’s hard not to be when watching a seventies black public speaker lament that African Americans “are being shot in the street like dogs by racist police officers.”

Lee is being didactic, but the film is no less powerful for that fact. Indeed, an extended portion of the movie’s first act is given over to a speech by the real-life Civil Rights advocate Kwame Ture. While Ture speaks, Lee devotes as much attention to the audience as to the character himself, he captures the power of being exposed to these ideas, of having to confront these realities, to face the horrors of this world. Tellingly, Ture even returns to his own traumatic cinematic experiences; the internalised racism driven by Tarzan movie serials.

Holding the thin blue line.

This perhaps suggests a reason for some of the more tempered aspects of the film. Certain critics, including Boots Riley, have justifiably criticised the film for its portrayal of seventies policing. BlacKkKlansman largely glosses over the idea of firmly ingrained institutional racism among police departments in favour of providing easier targets for its righteous anger. The fictional Stallworth is sent to infiltrate a single meeting of “black radicals”, while his real world counterpart attended multiple meetings.

Most strikingly, the overt racism in the police force is effectively embodied through one singular bad apple, who expresses himself in the most ridiculous manner possible. The other white police officers are aware of this character’s racism, even pointing out that he shot a young black teenager. BlacKkKlansman seems to believe that the problems in the Colorado Springs Police Department can all be sorted if this one racist is exposed and held accountable.

Not here to point fingers.

This obviously is not how the real world works; racism is often firmly entrenched in the structures of government, added and abetted by those who actively turn a blind eye to it and perpetuate it through small compromises. BlacKkKlansman alludes to this reality at points; most notably in the difficulty that Stallworth has in getting support from the FBI for his investigation, or in the “budgetary reasons” given for shutting down his work. However, most of this simmers in the background.

There is a sense that BlacKkKlansman is consciously avoiding wandering into that particular quagmire directly, instead choosing to offer a more broadly drawn and less directly confrontational portrayal of racism in America. Early in BlacKkKlansman, the officers recruiting Stallworth ask if he would tolerate abuse from a fellow officer to get things done. “If I had to,” he reluctantly concedes. BlacKkKlansman prioritises telling its story ahead of offering an overtly complex evisceration of systemic racism within law enforcement.

Stalwart Stallworth.

This has obvious value. The heart of the film arguably rests between Stallworth and the officer who is drafted in to play him during face-to-face meetings with the Klan, “Flip” Zimmerman. Zimmerman is Jewish, but has always passed as white. The operation opens his eyes about how easily he has taken that privilege – that power to pass – for granted. “I never really thought about it before,” he reflects on his heritage while holding his membership card to the KKK. “Now I think about it all the time.”

There is something fundamentally optimistic in the politics of BlacKkKlansman, a film that fundamentally believes that people from different backgrounds can be reliable and trustworthy allies. Stallworth might be the driving force behind the investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, but he is not alone. He is able to leverage the privilege and power of his white allies to help him accomplish what he could not do alone. “With the right white man,” he boasts, “we can do anything.” The film even closes with a tribute to a worthy ally to these righteous causes.

Reaching an audience.

This is a very hopeful outlook. BlacKkKlansman is undoubtedly driven by righteous anger, but it is also underscored with a cautious humanism. There is a sense that there is value in telling the story in this way, in approaching the subject in a manner that very consciously reaches out to a wide audience instead of aggressively confronting them. The result is genuinely powerful, and a testament to Lee’s faith in cinema as a medium that can have this sort of impact and which can make a tangible difference to the way that people see the world.

This optimism is obviously guarded, coated in a layer of justifiable wariness. The movie ends with the humiliation of the Ku Klux Klan by Ron Stallworth. Stallworth is eager to continue with his investigation and infiltration, but his superiors insist that the matter is closed. Any audience member with any political awareness knows that this is not the case, as Lee himself demonstrates both with the final shots of his fictional narrative and with the coda that he provides to this story.

Not O-KKK.

Nevertheless, BlacKkKlansman is an ode to the power of cinema and of narratives in general, and a clear attempt to wrest control of that narrative at a time when reality itself seems to be unspooling. Ron Stallworth might believe that with the right white man he can do anything, but there are moments when it seems like Spike Lee believes that with the right film he can do anything.

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