The true story on which Spike Lee’s new film, “BlacKkKlansman,” is based could have been turned into a comedy or a buddy movie, a genre that portrays the ties that form between two men who are different from one another – in this case, one who’s black and one who’s white, and, professionally speaking, a veteran and a rookie. Lee’s picture, which won the second most important prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, contains both comic aspects and references to buddy movies, but its power derives from the way they are interwoven with a broad sweep of thematic and emotional elements Lee introduces, for the most part successfully.
Drawing on a now-forgotten story of narrow scope, Lee has created a work that extends its arms widely, to embrace not only American history, but the history of how American cinema has addressed the status of blacks and their representation in American society and culture. Known for his social and political activism and his unflinching stands, Lee has devoted many of his feature and documentary films to the history and status of the blacks in America. The best known of these are the fiery “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Malcolm X” (1992), one of the finest film biographies ever made.
The new film is not as overtly angry as those pictures. It is more subdued emotionally, the result of the director’s observation of the events from a distance, which translates into irony. But even though the movie doesn’t set out to generate emotional agitation, there is fury in it, expressed in its statement that nothing has changed in America since the 1970s, the period in which the story unfolds.
“BlacKkKlansman” tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, who played Malcolm X), the first black detective on the Colorado Springs police force. Lee doesn’t devote time to Stallworth’s treatment at the hands of his white colleagues. The expected scenes of weird looks and racist comments don’t materialize (though Stallworth is compelled to undergo a quite humiliating job interview), and the depiction of police racism focuses on one individual whose flagrantly crude behavior borders on caricature.
The novice detective is initially assigned a job in the archive, but he’s eager to do undercover work and initiates the mission that forms the hub of the plot: to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan and expose its members and their deeds. Responding to a recruiting ad for the Klan – which calls itself “the organization” – he speaks to a representative on the phone, avoiding revealing that he is black. The organization duly sends him a membership application form, but then its officials want to meet their new member. Stallworth’s solution is to send a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish, to the meeting to impersonate him.
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The plot revolves largely around how Ron and Flip work together, but there is no romantic or sentimental portrayal of the evolution of their relations into a close friendship. They work together, and that’s all. It’s Stallworth who pulls the strings, instructing Flip on how to speak like him, what to say and how to behave, but at a certain stage the strings are prone to tear.
Contempt and revulsion
The organization’s members are depicted as a bunch of dangerous fools. That portrayal might stir criticism in America for being too lenient, but it dovetails with the film’s general tone. The contempt Lee shows for the members of the organization – including David Duke (Topher Grace), the Klan’s leader at the time, whom Flip has the “privilege” to meet – demonstrates his revulsion. (In a particularly ironic sequence, it’s Stallworth, of all people, who is assigned to be Duke’s bodyguard when the latter visits Colorado Springs in the wake of their phone conversations.)
This film about the Ku Klux Klan is not packed with marches of men in white sheets, and there’s no glut of burning crosses. The director seems to feel the organization isn’t worthy of that sort of cinematic spectacle, and he steers the crux of the story toward its social and cultural contexts.
The film opens with one of the best-known shots from “Gone with the Wind,” a picture about the resilience of the South, in which Scarlett O’Hara wanders through the train station in Atlanta amid masses of wounded soldiers. Lee also references “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, which depicts a takeover of the South by freed slaves in blatantly racist terms. The title of Lee’s picture also evokes that film (which was based on the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” by Thomas Dixon Jr). And Lee includes a scene in which 91-year-old Harry Belafonte – who was briefly a film star in the 1950s and in the 1960s was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle in America – relates an appalling event to which he was a witness.
Lee started shooting “BlacKkKlansman” after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and the film is packed with references to him, including lines that recall his slogans in the campaign and afterward. On top of this, at the end of the film Lee moves to present-day America and inserts a clip from the events at Charlottesville, Virginia exactly a year ago, in August 2017, when a protester against a neo-Nazi rally was run over and killed and many were injured. Trump, it will be recalled, responded by saying that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
There are two weaknesses in the movie. Possibly because most of Lee’s films in recent years have fared poorly at the box office, he has inserted into “BlacKkKlansman” a love affair between Stallworth and Patrice (Laura Harrier), a political activist, from whom he conceals his position on the police force, because otherwise she would dump him. The affair between the two doesn’t take off and feels like an artificial implant in the plot.
The second weakness is the casting of John David Washington as Ron Stallworth. Washington lacks presence and charisma, and gives a one-note performance. The choice of Washington is perplexing, as there are so many fine black actors in the United States, but it may be connected with the identity of the actor’s father. As a result of Washington’s failings, the thrust of the film is toward Adam Driver, both because of his greater skill as an actor and because of his more active role in the plot. Spike Lee is always an interesting director who has been active in the American cinema since the mid-1980s, contributing to it and also upending it. His body of work is rich and challenging, and watching his new film recalls and affirms his decades-long central place in American culture.