BlacKKKlansman Is Both Awkward and Enthralling

BlacKKKlansman is a messy, unfocused film. But it's also one of Spike Lee's best.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. Focus Features

BlacKKKlansman is one of a spate of new movies by filmmakers of color out this summer: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Carl Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting, and now this film, from a reenergized Spike Lee. Whatever you think of the merits of each one, together they seem to promise a new era of hard-edged, darkly comic, politically angry cinema that’s arrived not a moment too soon.

Lee’s film is inherently fascinating because its biographical source material, Ron Stallworth’s book Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, is so incredible. Recognizing the jaw-dropping quality of the content, Lee includes an inter-title at the beginning of the film assuring us that this is “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.”

It tells the story of Stallworth as a black rookie cop in the mid 1970s who is considered the “Jackie Robinson” of the notably racist all-white Colorado Springs Police Department. Desperate to get promoted out of the records room, where he fetches files for nasty white cops who outrank and abuse him, Stallworth is determined to become an undercover officer. He’s initially assigned to infiltrate an event hosted by the Colorado College Black Student Union featuring a speech by a leading member of the Black Panthers, Kwame Ture, better known by his birth name, Stokely Carmichael. Stallworth’s fellow cop tells him, “They say he’s a damn good speaker, so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good Negroes of Colorado Springs.”

After this consciousness-raising experience, Stallworth contacts the local Ku Klux Klan branch office on his own initiative and talks his way into a KKK membership by engaging Klan leaders on the phone and sending in a white officer to play Ron Stallworth in person. (Yeah, Stallworth actually used his own name for this undercover operation — kind of a big rookie mistake.) The white officer is Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, who’s very good.

At a peak moment in this insane situation, Stallworth accidentally contacts the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke (played by Topher Grace with nicely bland, clueless arrogance). He winds up becoming Duke’s valued confidant, to the point that Stallworth is secure enough in his Klan alter-ego to mess with Duke, asking him how he knows he isn’t actually talking to a black man. He goads Duke into claiming he always knows the difference between a black speaking voice and a white speaking voice. Duke gives crazy made-up specifics such as, “Where you and I would say ‘are’ correctly, a black person would say ‘are-ah.’”

This leads to a nicely humiliating payoff at the end that had the audience in the Oakland theater where I saw the film hooting with laughter. The real David Duke, irritated by being portrayed as a total jackass, has crawled out of the woodwork to protest the film:

This whole KKK film is a big lie. Cops infiltrated a Klan chapter. But, if the film is true by depicting them as violent, why no arrests? no trials? no grand juries? Why? They were NOT violent or illegal — Only trying to awaken whites to their coming ethnic cleansing in America.

There are many engrossing and entertaining scenes in the film, especially if you don’t get distracted by certain troubling foundational aspects of the film. Like, for example, what’s up with this Ron Stallworth guy, our hero in the film? Why on earth does he want to be a cop in the first place, especially in a KKK stronghold like Colorado Springs? And why does he stay on, even after his work is repeatedly undermined by the racist chief of police (Robert John Burke) to the point of endangering his life?

The film doesn’t do any deep probing about who the protagonist is except a straight arrow who claims he just “always wanted to be a cop” and who says things like, “I can speak the King’s English as well as jive.” Part of the blank quality of the film’s hero might be due to the fact that the actor playing him, John David Washington, handsome son of Denzel Washington, is too poker-faced in his delivery. Perhaps he can’t communicate the necessary internal anguish of having to claim with a straight face that he’s trying to “change the system from inside.” He’s no Denzel, who specializes in conveying simmering anger and internal conflict through his eyes and the tone of his voice, regardless of what he’s literally saying.

This Ron Stallworth is such a total, hopeless square, you can’t believe he’s managing to ignite the romantic interest of the gorgeous campus radical Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the Black Student Union. I have to assume her character is somebody’s fantasy date transposed onto Stallworth’s film biography.

If you get curious enough to look up the details of Stallworth’s real-life bio, you find that he went on to work as a narcotics investigator in Colorado Springs, and then transferred to the narcotic enforcement bureau in Utah. I don’t mean to be unduly judgmental, but it seems the guy’s a narc of long standing. And surely the narcotics beat has a long, despicable history when it comes to the harassment, abuse, and imprisonment of black people.

Soon after BlacKKKlansman opened, Boots Riley addressed the cop-hero issue by tweeting this cogent “rhetorical question”:

After 40 years of cop shows and cop movies — did we really need one more movie where it supposed to be about racism but the cops are the actual heroes of the film and the most effective force against racism?

It’s a good point. Cop worship in popular American media is widespread and grotesque, given the continual reports of police corruption and abuse, most egregiously aimed at African Americans. Yet at this point it’s such a convention, it’s hardly noticed by mainstream viewers. And here we’ve got another film that in the end seems to celebrate the “family” bond of cops. Though BlacKKKlansman acknowledges that this “family” bond is directly tied to codes of silence that protect cops who habitually prey on black citizens, it’s also celebrated as the force that can solve race-related problems and overcome racial divides in scenes of celebratory hugging.

Riley, who has professed great admiration for Spike Lee, deleted the tweet soon after, noting that he wanted BlacKKKlansman to “do [its] thing at the box office for a while.” He added that, regarding his initial tweet, “you can have that feeling with love.”

Nevertheless, this appearance of an online dust-up seemed to create the impression of a Team Boots vs Team Spike rivalry in people’s minds. If it comes down to a vote, I don’t mind saying I’m Team Boots all the way. I have to admit I’ve never been a big Spike Lee fan. It seems to me that his films, though sometimes quite powerful, also tend to be didactic, formally heavy-handed, and even kind of sloppy. BlacKKKlansman is pretty typical Lee in all of these ways, though the source material makes it one of his stronger films. It’s getting such great reviews, it’s interesting to note when reviewers recognize the awkward mishmash Lee generates and still find ways to proclaim their love, as Bilge Ebiri of Village Voice does, for example: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully.”

For almost every lovely, effective shot Lee achieves in BlacKKKlansman, such as the inspired faces of black audience members blooming out of darkness as they listen to Kwame Ture’s speech, there’s a baffling shot requiring explanatory subtitles. As Exhibit A, I ask you to consider the significant number of prominent, lingering, poetic rural landscape shots, all quivering sunlight through forest leaves, creating a useless motif that I am goddamned if I can figure out.

But more important to the film’s intermittent “huh?” effect are longer sequences such as the opening, with its piled-up confusion of visual and aural elements. The film starts with 1939 footage from Gone With the Wind, the famous crane shot of the endless expanse of war dead and wounded at the Atlanta train depot that ends on the image of the ragged Confederate flag flapping in the breeze. For some reason, the visuals are from the original film, but a new soundtrack has been imposed featuring Scarlet O’Hara loudly squawking out lines that were barely audible in the 1939 film, and “Swanee” playing instead of “Dixie.”

This is followed by black-and-white film of Alec Baldwin playing a 1950s McCarthy-era conservative ideologue spouting a racist diatribe, apparently for a TV telecast, and repeatedly forgetting his lines. This bitter gag runs far too long, and is accompanied by more film footage, this time of D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1916 celebration of the KKK, Birth of a Nation. Baldwin’s rant includes language meant to evoke later racist scandals, such as the term “super-predators.”

In its messy way, the sequence is trying to convey the complex relationship of media and public, for better or worse — usually for worse — when it comes to attitudes about race in America. This theme continues throughout the film with mixed results. There’s a tribute to the power of Blaxploitation films that’s pretty cool, starting with poster images and ending with the male and female leads taking up Shaft and Foxy Brown poses in a spectacular dolly-zoom shot when they’re confronted with real-life danger. (The audience broke into applause for this shot.)

And later, at a climactic point in the film, there’s a cross-cutting sequence between a screening of Birth of a Nation, cheered on by popcorn-munching Klan members, and a speech by Harry Belafonte, legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist. Belafonte tells the tragic story of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, which was one horrifying result of the resurgent Klan violence inspired by Birth of a Nation.

If you’ve taken Basic Film History, you know D.W. Griffith is credited with perfecting the use of cross-cutting. So, Lee takes back cross-cutting from Griffith and uses its filmic power against his racist legacy. Which could be great if the sequence worked better, but it seems heavy, static, and contrived. However, now you’ll recognize this reference when it comes up in BlacKKKlansman, and can impress your friends with your film knowledge.

I wish there were fewer meta-flourishes and more content dealing with some of the grittier facts of Stallworth’s amazing investigation. For instance, it’s mystifying how little Lee makes of the fact that just a few decades earlier, in the 1920s, the entire Colorado state power structure had been loaded with KKK members and supporters, right to the top of the tree. As the Washington Post background story on the real Ron Stallworth points out:

The Klan dominated the Colorado State Senate and House of Representatives and counted longtime Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton among its members. . . . Colorado Gov. Clarence J. Morley was a Klansman, according to the Denver Public Library. Two U.S. senators, Rice Means and Lawrence Phipps, had strong Klan connections, as did the lieutenant governor, state auditor and attorney general. William J. Candlish, a grand dragon, was chief of the Denver Police Department. Klan members sat on the Board of Regents for the University of Colorado and the State Supreme Court, Stallworth discovered.

It’s a point that Lee gestures toward, making the cold-eyed, racist chief of police character stand in for a host of other high-powered offenders. But Lee never really punches it across, even though it’s the most impressive thing about Stallworth’s career — that he set about exposing and thwarting the KKK in 1970s Colorado, an impossible and life-threatening task. The Klansmen Lee characterizes are laughable yokels, even at their scariest. But presumably there were much smarter Klansmen holding powerful positions in Colorado government whom we never see, and whose chilling competence in ending Stallworth’s investigation is never directly portrayed. And as David Duke indicates, in any larger sense, there were no arrests, no trials, no grand juries.

But Lee keeps his focus on entrenched white supremacy in America in other ways. There are gallows-humor references to Trump, such as the discussion of David Duke’s mainstream political ambitions that leads to Stallworth saying he can’t believe that Americans would ever elect some racist clown as president. (Big rueful audience laugh here.) And the film concludes with footage from the torch-bearing “Unite the Right” fascist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, one year ago, followed by the day-after attack on anti-fascist protesters by a neo-Nazi using a car as a weapon. There’s no denying the gut-punch impact of those images. Rest in peace Heather Heyer.