Spike Lee (2018)
On one level, Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansmanis a buddy-cop movie, in the vein of Tango and Cash or, in its evocation of the world of the ’70s, Freebie and the Bean, although the teaming up of a black and a white officer might call to mind 48 Hours or the immensely popular Lethal Weapon series. Like other films in this genre, the plot forces two people from very different backgrounds to work together to solve a crime or to investigate suspected criminals. The two officers are contrasted often in terms of rookie vs. veteran, by-the-book vs. seat of the pants or wildly unconventional, and/or often come from different ethnic groups. Typically they also learn something from one another and develop some sort of grudging mutual respect in the process. BlacKkKlansman, which features, from TV’s Ballers, John David Washington (son of Denzel. No pressure there) as Ron Stallworth, the rookie cop, and Adam Driver (Silence, StarWars: The Last Jedi) as veteran cop Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, hits every one of these defining points.
But the buddy film plot is only a convenient structure on which Lee hangs a number of other concerns. In the first place, Lee uses the medium of film to explore—and to censure—the role that film and other popular media have played in perpetuating black stereotypes and, to their deeper shame, normalizing racist or white supremacist attitudes by romanticizing them. Lee’s film actually opens with the immensely powerful scene from Gone With the Wind, Hollywood’s biggest ever blockbuster, showing Scarlett O’Hara among thousands of wounded southern soldiers as the camera pans out in a long crane shot to show the entire railway station grounds spread out beneath a tattered Confederate flag still bravely waving in the breeze. Our rebel boys may be losing, but their cause was just! It was about states’ rights, not slavery! Ashley Wilkes would have freed his slaves eventually anyway! The nostalgia for that way of life, now gone with the wind, is merely a dressed-up nostalgia for white supremacy.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the next scene in this prelude that frames the main action of the film is a polemical parody of a ranting white supremacist called by the fictional name of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) putting together a far less polished propaganda film using black and white news footage from the 1960s (indicating when the film is supposedly being made). Beauregard’s voiceover rants about the evils of integration and miscegenation and the “mongrel nation” the United States is becoming, blaming the miscarriage of justice ushered in by the “Jewish-puppets on the Supreme Court” and their damnable decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education. The juxtaposition of these two film clips suggests a clear connection between the romanticizing of these racist ideas in the mainstream media, and the survival of those ideas at their most dangerous in peripheral media like the Beauregard propaganda film, and other more contemporary outlets in newer media.
This critical assessment of the media continues throughout the film, first in another, more serious political speech, this time by Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins of Straight Outta Compton), former Black Panther activist who remembers his boyhood obsession with films of Tarzan, king of the jungle, and confesses how he rooted for Tarzan to kill the black Africans that got in his way. Ture further criticizes media-created standards of beauty, which privilege typical white features to the detriment of African-American noses, lips and hair. “Black is beautiful” is Ture’s rival message.
In a somewhat lighter scene, Stallworth and girlfriend Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier of Spiderman:Homecoming), take a nature stroll while they discuss, over the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” current films with black protagonists: Shaft vs. Superfly, Cleopatra Jones vs. Coffy. Patrice’s voluminous Afro seems to channel Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra, while with his pointy-shirt-collared leisure suits and his own impressive Afro Stallworth looks like he could have stepped straight off the set of Shaft. Stallworth argues that some of these films depict positive images of blacks in law enforcement, but Patrice, who thinks all cops are “pigs,” calls these depictions “blaxploitation fantasy.”
The climax of these Hollywood critiques occurs at a private banquet featuring David Duke—played, in a brilliant piece of casting, by Topher Grace of That Seventies Show, here portraying with chilling aplomb a different kind of ’70s figure. Duke, head of the KKK, is in town to initiate new members, and he presides over a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The 1915 silent feature was Hollywood’s first huge blockbuster and held all box office records for 24 years—until finally surpassed by Gone With the Wind. Griffith’s film, a technical masterpiece that set the standard for cinematic form for a generation, was a glorification of the most vicious kind of racism that romanticized the Ku Klux Klan and had the result of reinvigorating Klan membership nationwide and, as Lee argues, provoking violence against African Americans as the natural result.
As a framework to all of this, there is of course a plot in this film, based on the real Stallworth’s 2014 book Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime. A number of separate incidents in the book have been put together to make a single narrative for the film, that goes like this: Stallworth applies to become the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. At first, he is stuck in the evidence room, but he longs to work undercover. He gets his chance when the local college’s Black Student Union brings in Ture as a guest speaker, and the local police decide to infiltrate the rally in case Kure incites the crowd. Stallworth wears a wire and is monitored by Zimmerman, who proves to be an unexpected ally when the two of them report to the chief that Kure’s words were “just rhetoric” and not intended to incite the crowd to violence. But at the rally, Stallworth has met Patrice, president of the Black Student organization, and, without telling her he is a police officer, begins a relationship with her.
Back at the station, Stallworth notices an advertisement in the local paper recruiting members for the local branch of the KKK. He calls the number, poses as a white racist, and is invited to come and get acquainted with the group. Since he can hardly go himself, he enlists Zimmerman to pose as “Ron” and infiltrate the group, wearing a wire at all times. While the real Ron communicates by phone with the local leaders and with David Duke himself—asking why his membership card has been delayed—events ensue that put Zimmerman into some difficult situations but that also allow the police to uncover specific acts of planned violence.
More would probably be spoiler territory, but let me just say that the plot itself follows a fairly typical buddy-cop scenario. But in addition to its frank examination (and indictment) of the media and Hollywood in particular, the film has other things to recommend it. Driver, as a secular Jewish cop who has never given much thought to his ethnic heritage, but who is forced to confront it when faced with the vicious antisemitism of his KKK associates, has never been better. A scene in which Harry Belafonte, as the elderly Mr. Turner, describes the brutal murder of a friend in 1916 in scenes intercut with that screening of Birth of a Nation, is a masterpiece of editing. While I thought that the relationship and political differences between Ron and Patrice were underdeveloped and could have been better utilized, the film as a whole was particularly effective. In case we haven’t gotten the message, Lee’s concluding scenes return to a frame of media images, this time contemporary images of the white supremicists’ Charlottesville rally and President Trump’s defense of their actions—an indictment of an American society that, 40 years after the events of this film, has allowed those same racist attitudes to re-emerge more powerful than ever.
This may not be Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X, but it’s probably Lee’s best film since. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.
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