It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.
The movie is an adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir called Black Klansman. Stallworth was the first African-American police officer – hired in the 1970s – to work for the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department. Through an intricate ruse, where he posed as a white racist in phone conversations and a white undercover detective played the part in face-to-face encounters, Stallworth successfully infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. At one point he even spoke with David Duke, who was the Grand Wizard – sorry, by this point, Duke had tried to clean up the organization’s image by changing his title to “National Director” – of the KKK, to ask about getting his membership card.
There are plenty of people today who probably think of the KKK as a joke. That might be changing now due to the flourishing of “Unite the Right” style rallies that the Klan and other hate groups have been staging in the last few years. These rallies reached a sickening zenith that ended in carnage aimed at counter-protesters in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Far from being a laughing stock, the KKK is a terrorist organization, and the main plot of BlacKkKlansman involves Stallworth discovering the Colorado Springs chapter’s plan to bomb members of a local black student union.
Former president and ostentatious bigot Woodrow Wilson described D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic film Birth of a Nation – which single-handedly revived the Klan in the early 20th century after it had languished for decades – as “like writing history with lightning.” One of the characters in BlacKkKlansman quotes Wilson as saying so. In the last 100 years, there has been much hemming and hawing by film scholars, critics, and enthusiasts about the legacy of Birth of a Nation. As someone who attended film school, and follows, at least from the sidelines, critical analysis and discussion of film history, I’ve witnessed some of this first hand. The movie, and its director, were decades ahead of their time. Nation employed advanced techniques in editing that were then in their infancy. The story and the picture’s sympathies are, however, disgusting and deeply racist.
In the stand out sequence of BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has ended the debate over Birth of a Nation once and for all. It comes at just past the halfway point, and Lee masterfully and ironically uses the same cross-cutting style of editing for which Birth of a Nation is so hailed by film lovers. Lee himself has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and he has incorporated countless visual and auditory cues from past films in his own work.
The sequence cuts between two groups. One is the Colorado Springs KKK chapter. They are holding a ceremony to induct new members – one of whom is undercover detective Flip Zimmerman, the officer pretending to be Ron Stallworth in person. The other group is the black student union. They have invited activist Jerome Turner, played in a phenomenal cameo appearance by noted civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, to give a speech about a lynching he witnessed in 1916. As the Klan members hold an impromptu movie night after the ceremony to watch, what else, Birth of a Nation, Turner describes how that movie emboldened racists to once again don the white hoods and terrorize an entire race of people. Lee’s editor, Barry Alexander Brown, uses the technique for which Birth is most remembered to condemn the film as he cuts between the two lines of action – the Klan members uproariously hooting-and-hollering their way through the movie as we simultaneously hear Turner describe the lynching that the same movie possibly inspired.
In a stirring and harrowing creative decision, the event Turner describes is a real-life account of a lynching that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in 1916. It’s a moving sequence, and Lee brings it to vivid, horrifying life. Throughout this extended bit of polemic, however, Lee never loses focus on our hero. Ron has found a safe spot to view the Klan’s ceremony. It’s through a window. The image of his face, hidden in shadow, as he watches the men enjoy the movie is haunting.
As dour as all that sounds, Lee does take the time to inject moments of levity, style, and even pop culture references into BlacKkKlansman. In one scene between Ron and Patrice Dumas, the president of the black student union with whom Ron has become romantically involved, we witness their discussion about the best blaxploitation movies. As they debate the merits of Shaft vs. Superfly, Lee playfully superimposes posters of those movies over the action.
The most striking visual flourish in BlacKkKlansman comes when the civil rights leader Kwame Ture, born Stokely Carmichael, gives a speech to the black student union early in the film. He talks about how black brothers and sisters don’t have the features that the dominant white culture associates with beauty, but that their features are beautiful, nonetheless. As he does so, Lee calls attention to those features. He creates painting-like stills of black faces, illuminated against a black void. It is the audience listening with rapt attention, but Lee separates them from the context of the nightclub where they are sitting. He wants us to see only the faces, and the beauty that they contain.
Spike Lee is also known for incorporating direct address into his movies. That is the technique of a character or characters speaking directly to the camera and, by extension, the audience. Even though none of the characters within BlacKkKlansman speak to us, Lee uses the movie itself to direct address his audience. The film is set in the late 1970s, but Lee uses an intoxicating swirl of past, the movie’s present, and our present to make the point that the forces Ron is fighting in the 70s are alive and well today.
In his inimitable style, Lee opens the picture with a 1950s educational-type industrial film. A buffoonish “southern gentlemen” named Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard, brought to life via a brilliant cameo I won’t spoil here, tells us about the superiority of the white race and the existential dangers of race-mixing. Lee includes “outtakes” of Dr. Beaureguard flubbing some of his lines. It makes him look as foolish as his White Pride rhetoric sounds.
If that’s intended for comedic effect, the call to action with which Lee closes BlacKkKlansman is just as potent dramatically. We’ve gone from the 1950s – and arguably the 1860s, since the educational film begins with the “confederate wounded” scene from Gone with the Wind – to the 1970s, and the movie closes in the here and now. We see real footage of the Klan resurgent once again. They shout, “Blood and soil,” and “The Jews will not replace us,” in handheld footage of white supremacist rallies. Donald Trump even makes an appearance. We see footage of his speech about “very fine people, on both sides,” when talking about antifascist counter-protesters clashing with neo-Nazis at their rallies. Lee has been uncompromising throughout his career in his stance on our racist culture and society. BlacKkKlansman stands as another of his masterpieces, and a brilliantly executed critique of that culture and society.
Why it got 5 stars:
- BlacKkKlansman moved me in a way I haven't been moved by a film in quite a while. It's not without its problems (I'll get to those below), but from an emotional and stylistic perspective, this is the best movie of the year so far.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I had a few problems with the plot, but these are tiny, nitpicky issues. For instance: for all the grief Ron's commanding officer gives him, his agreement to allow Ron to pursue infiltrating the KKK seems way to quick to be believable. There is also a sting operation at the end of the movie that, while satisfying, feels tacked-on and rushed.
- Four people are credited with writing the screenplay, two of which wrote an initial draft in 2015, and Spike Lee gets a credit, presumably for a polish or rewrite just before production began. You can feel all these different voices and drafts at times throughout the movie. It feels a little overstuffed and scattered. But again, what BlacKkKlansman gets right, it gets so, so right. Because of that, this issue becomes only a quibble.
- In the opening bit with Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard, he uses the term "superpredators" in his speech. That's a term Hillary Clinton used twenty years ago to defend her husband's crime bill, and the black community relitigated her use of it during the 2016 election. That's just one example of the intoxicating swirl of past and present that Lee plays with in the movie. It also shows that, as far as he's concerned, nobody is sacred, and everyone's a target.
- Isiah Whitlock Jr. pops up in one scene, and he issues his famous delivery of the word "shit." (Sheeeeeee-it). Fans of The Wire, one of the best television shows ever created, know what's up.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Not much to say this week. It was a small crowd (much, much smaller than the movie deserves), but everyone seemed really into it.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Author Nick Hornby has had several of his books turned into films, High Fidelity and About a Boy among them. His 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked, a romantic comedy about a musician starting up a correspondence with the girlfriend of his biggest fan, is the latest to get the big screen treatment. It stars Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O'Dowd.