LEONARD QUART: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKKKlansman’ shows political passion
Spike Lee’s early films like “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) centered on a sensual black woman, who claimed that monogamy is a form of slavery and that her sexually free lifestyle is freedom in its purest form. The brilliant “Do the Right Thing” (1989) imaginatively touched on such themes as police brutality, gentrification, and both black and white racism. It successfully fused realism and stylization to evoke a kaleidoscope of black community life and problems on one Brooklyn street during a summer heatwave. Both were personal works about complex aspects of black life that the larger public had rarely seen before on the screen. Since then, he has made a number of other films, some that fell flat or were incoherent and others that were artistic though rarely commercial successes like “Clockers,” “25th Hour” and “Malcolm X.”
In recent years he made a deeply felt, visually vivid and ambitious film, “Chi-raq” (2015), about police and gang violence, poverty, and the worship of the gun and misogyny in a roiling Chicago. The problem was that the film was also repetitive, inchoate and often looked like nothing more then crude agitprop. His new film “BlacKKKlansman” contains some of the same flaws but, though set in the 1970s, often transcends its weaknesses to heavy-handedly but powerfully evoke our current Trump-dominated era, one in which an unembarrassed racist is in power and the alt-right, including neo-Nazis, has been resurrected, and ultra-right ideologues like Steve Bannon have political influence and appear often on the media.
The film is based on a real story about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel), a smart, articulate young man who, in the late ’70s, becomes a cop in Colorado Springs—the first African-American to join a police force with many racist officers and, being ambitious and looking for something significant to do, infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He does so by using a supposedly Aryan voice on the phone while fellow cop, deracinated Jew Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, who always gives a fine performance), embodies Ron, attending a Klan event, wearing a wire, and fending off a rabid anti-Semitic Klansman, who, for the first time in his life, makes him conscious that he is a Jew.
Both actors give convincing performances, but Lee demands little of them on a psychological level. They serve the narrative rather than exist as characters with any real dimension. Lee does suggest but never goes too deep, exploring how Ron is split between his professional commitment to being a good policeman and his political feelings. His divided self is seen most clearly when he is assigned to spy on a black power rally addressed by the charismatic former SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, by then known as Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Ture has the crowd of black college students politically aroused and chanting (telling them to rise above self-hate and assert that “black is beautiful”) in a scene that powerfully has their faces coming in and out of the darkness.
Lee is on target capturing the black power rhetoric and style of the period—the Afros, the raised fists, the jargon, and the politically naïve and futile (if understandable) commitment to racial separatism. Ron’s romantic interest is the sweetly dogmatic head of the local college’s black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who is opposed to working to change society from the inside and can’t abide that Ron is a “pig.” But the relationship never comes alive—depicting relations between men and women with any emotional depth has rarely been Lee’s strength.
Lee views the Klan members as a group of alcoholics; murderous, sociopathic racists; and dim rednecks. He may have turned them into caricatured clowns and fools, but they still remain ominous figures—engaging in cross-burnings and bombings—who are not easily laughed off. And Topher Grace as the head Klansman, David Duke, offers something more insidious and dangerous in his bland, soft-spoken affirmation of white supremacy—not so different than some more conventional right-wing Republican politicians, who would never use his language.
However, Ron’s story takes second place in this blunt attack on American racism. It’s the right political moment for Lee’s anger. Still, he constructs a too-lengthy polemical scene where the venerable, octogenarian Harry Belafonte holds a room in his hand commemorating a 1916 act of racial barbarism cross-cut with the Klansmen indulging in their usual racist bravado. But there are other instances where his lack of subtlety works. Lee also opens the film with a clip from “Gone with the Wind,” in which the camera provides a high overhead of Scarlett as she walks among the many Confederate wounded and dead, and then has Alec Baldwin—Trump on “Saturday Night Live”—play a white supremacist rehearsing and fluffing his racist lines with news footage playing in the background. It’s a striking way to begin the film. Lee also skillfully uses footage from D.W. Griffith’s great but blatantly racist “The Birth of a Nation.”
At the conclusion, he drops Ron’s story altogether for arresting footage from last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. I have seen the footage a number of times but, in the context of a film where American racism and Trump’s reinforcement of it play a prime role, it has a commanding and visceral resonance that captures the worst of the Trump era.
No one would ever call Spike Lee an emotionally subtle or politically nuanced filmmaker, but he has great political passion and artistic ambition, and his work is always formally imaginative and vibrant. All of his cinematic flaws and strengths can be readily seen in this impressive work.
‘BlacKKKlansman’ is playing at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. Click here for showtimes.