Where Spike Lee’s films usually brim with passion and intellect, his portrayal of black activism and racism in BlacKkKlansman becomes more slapstick than sinister. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’
There is a pivotal sequence in Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, when an elderly civil rights activist, played by Harry Belafonte, is invited to speak at a meeting of a Black Liberation group. We are in early 1970s Colorado Springs and the young militants are silent, and many of them begin to cry, as the octogenarian vividly describes his distress and terror when as a young boy he witnessed the mob murder of a black man. The lynching occurred not long after the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the early silent classic that laid the foundation of cinematic language but which also portrayed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan through heroic and romantic imagery. Lee cuts between the old man’s eloquent testimony and boisterous scenes of a Klan meeting in the same city. The Klansmen are watching Griffith’s film, falling about laughing at the racist depiction of the recently liberated slaves as drunkards and fools, enthusiastically cheering as the white-hooded KKK ride into save a white woman from black rapists.
This scene is central to BlacKkKlansman because as much as the film is ostensibly a dramatisation of a true story, of an African–American undercover cop, Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK, it is also a film about representation and race, about how such representation matters and how representation has real consequences and effects. In its best moments, the film is as much essay as it is narrative drama or comedy. A Black Panther gives a riveting speech on the racist aesthetics of beauty. While we listen to his oration, black faces in the audience emerge from the shadows, their surfacing claiming and asserting their grace. In another scene, a heterosexual couple discuss the contested meanings of the heroes and heroines of blaxploitation cinema, and as they argue, images from films such as Shaft, Coffy and Cleopatra Jones dominate the screen. There is an exciting intellectual curiosity and provocation in such sequences. But, unfortunately, they don’t form the core of the film.
The execution of the intercutting of the Belafonte monologue with the almost slapstick depiction of the Klan points to a key failing of this film. We understand what Lee is attempting – just as Griffith’s film caricatured the emancipated slaves as buffoons, Lee is doing the same with the Klansmen. But the resonance is no way commensurate for us as contemporary viewers. I was in my late teens when I first saw The Birth of a Nation, at a revival at an art-house cinema, and I still recall the shock I experienced at the loathsome depiction of the African–Americans, my visceral disgust at the glorification of the hooded Klan. There is no equivalent scandal in watching the Klan being roused when they watch Griffith’s film. We already know the KKK to be degenerate, to be obscene. So instead of greater illumination, the editing undermines the power of Belafonte’s speech. In this sequence, and throughout BlacKkKlansman, it is as if Lee doesn’t trust the intelligence of his audience. He keeps dumbing down everything for us.
Lee is one of four scriptwriters on the film, which is based on Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman. The screenplay is proficient, but no better than that, and the film is at its weakest when it plays as a straightforward police procedural. John David Washington is Stallworth, and though he isn’t a particularly charismatic actor, he is generous, and that allows for some lovely comic interplay both in his scenes with Adam Driver, who plays a Jewish cop who goes undercover with him, and also with Laura Harrier, who plays Patrice, a student militant with whom Stallworth falls in love. But what is missing from this film is the fierce intellectual authority that is central to Lee’s best work, whether based on his own scripts or in collaborations with others. In his most vital films, he shatters academic distinctions between form and content. It is as if you can see him working out his ideas, his obsessions and his doubts as he shoots. His technique is truly eclectic and dependent on the material; it’s his intellectual and political passion that brings unity to his work. It’s there in Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Bamboozled when he is taking on the legacy of racism in the United States, but it is also true for films such as She’s Gotta Have It and Girl 6 where he is interrogating the complexities of heterosexual desire, and cinema’s representation of gender. And it’s there in his explorations of New York City, again in Do the Right Thing but also in Summer of Sam and 25th Hour, where he is trying to make sense of the multicultural energy and concurrent racial tensions of this most iconic of migrant cities. When he is working with a script that means something to him, with ideas that animate him, his films are dazzlingly alive, and I come out of them in a sweat. Not everything is resolved and we as an audience are left with questions and arguments that we need to debate immediately over a coffee or a drink. When he is at his best, he’s bloody thrilling.
I didn’t raise a sweat during BlacKkKlansman. The direction is coldly efficient, and the plotting and characterisation are perfunctory. The film is in part a homage to exploitation cinema but the script lacks the dangerous comedy that a Tarantino, for example, can bring to such genre explorations. And I suspect Lee doesn’t share his fan boy reverence. The overwhelming problem is in the stupefying idiocy of the KKK as represented in this film. What gets lost is any sense of danger. Even their racism lacks menace. The only actor playing a Klansman that evinces any complexity is Ryan Eggold, but his character is under-written and becomes less central as the film approaches its climax. It’s a very fine performance, a small miracle in fact, creating a real human from such paltry writing.
Given the narrow and unimaginative narrative structure of the film, it is not necessarily a problem that the Klansmen are mere caricatures and that the racism is so clownish and unthreatening. But at just over two hours running time BlacKkKlansman overstays its welcome. I found myself frustrated every time we returned to the bungling antics of the KKK, and I became bored of the largely listless scenes in the cop station. Some of Lee’s finest work has been in documentary and I would have much preferred a film that examined the relationship of an earlier black activism to contemporary anti-racism struggles, the connections and dissonances between the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter, for example. Or an essay-style film that took on the challenge of what it means for an African–American filmmaker to work within an art form and national cinema that has as its foundational works such racist films as The Birth of a Nation. The film opens with an excerpt from the equally racist Gone with the Wind, to this day still glorified by Hollywood as the ne plus ultra of popular entertainment. Lee clearly wants us to be provoked and challenged by such interventions and juxtapositions, but the questions are raised and then left undeveloped. We keep returning to the banality of the Klan versus the cops, a storyline that doesn’t have much more sophistication than an episode of The Itchy & Scratchy Show.
The digressions into questions of representation and the arguments about black radicalism are the most potent scenes in the film. However, unlike Lee’s best work, these scenes are never integrated into the story. He’s being fearful here, not trusting that a contemporary audience will engage with the non-linear and the explorative. The fearfulness is also in how he resolves the tension of Stallworth being a cop and how this is a deal-breaker for Patrice, that she cannot countenance a relationship with a cop. That conflict, of course, speaks to the reality of both historic and contemporary fissures within US black radical politics. The resolution is both unbelievable and silly, and does no justice to Harrier’s fine, committed performance. It also undermines the complexity of the politics. Those final scenes between Patrice and Stallworth are some of Lee’s worst work.
BlacKkKlansman has a prologue and epilogue that frame the film we are watching as a commentary on the Trump election and the rise of identitarian politics. The coda is particularly devastating, with Lee gaining permission to use footage of a young woman, Heather Heyer, who was killed by the driver of the car that mowed down anti-racist protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year. No matter how emotionally affecting these images are, the truth is that BlacKkKlansman hasn’t earnt this ending. Spike Lee knows film and he knows the history of representation and the history of propaganda. This is the first of his works in which I felt he was talking down to us as an audience. Heyer’s death doesn’t deserve to be a coda to such a timid and uninspiring film.
LITERATURE Melbourne Writers Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, August 24 – September 2
VISUAL ART American Masters (1940-1980)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, August 24 – November 11
VISUAL ART Sun Xun
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until October 14
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, August 24 – September 16
PHOTOGRAPHY Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year
South Australian Museum, Adelaide, August 24 – November 11
THEATRE Calamity Jane
Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, August 23 – September 30
VISUAL ART Spaced 3: North by Southeast
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 7
Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, August 21 – September 23
MUSICAL Extended Play
City Recital Hall, Sydney, August 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 18, 2018 as "Clowning the Klan".
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