I’ve been watching Spike Lee’s work from a serious academic perspective since I first saw DO THE RIGHT THING in my freshman Introduction to Film class in 2005. I’ve previously written about his issues with gender for CounterPunch that came to a head three years ago with the release of CHI-RAQ. I still hold true to those opinions and would not withdraw that critique. From DO THE RIGHT THING to MALCOLM X to INSIDE MAN he was presenting flat, one-dimensional female characters who demonstrated a profoundly mistaken vision of Black femininity in particular.
Since that time, he clearly has gotten some sort of serious work done internally about intersectional feminism and has decided to let it show in his new picture BLACKkKLANSMAN. Indeed, if there is one thing that seems obvious, it would be that Lee has perhaps flipped things on their head. Now we have a leading female character, the Black Student Union chapter president Patrice (Laura Harrier), who is dynamic, full of a vitality and pathos, while the main male character, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), is restrained and sometimes seems nearly comatose. Of course, this is due to the fact that he is the first Black police officer on the Colorado Springs force in 1972. Working alongside Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, creating a police procedural which is far more than it seems.
The irony of the story is that Stallworth is the voice over the phone talking to the Klansmen while Zimmerman, using his partner’s name, does the undercover work in person. Brilliantly, Lee uses this to create an illustration on film of the double-conciousness notion described by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. Through this device, the simple procedural, and old and well-worn genre, becomes a multi-layered analysis of white supremacy, the contradictions of liberation as opposed to accomodation politics within the Black polity, and the way that racism poisons one’s mind even if they are deeply opposed to those opinions. Driver’s character, light-years away from the angsty and pouting Kylo Ren of recent STAR WARS pictures, journeys through a subtle, nearly unspoken pain as he is consistently interrogated by a particularly neurotic Klansman over whether he is Jewish. Midway into the film, with only a slight crack in his macho veneer, he explains to his partner that he was raised secularly and never even had a bar mitzvah or went to those held by peers. Nevertheless, after months of exposure to the racist vitriol, he ruminates on his heritage constantly, suggesting a diabolical osmosis is at play.
Such an osmosis is given preliminary coordinates in an early sequence of the picture, when Stallworth wears a wire on the job while attending a lecture by Kwame Ture (played in a brilliant cameo by Corey Hawkins). During the lecture, which clearly recalls the more inspiring moments of MALCOLM X, Lee is most artistic and experimental. With clear inspiration from the German expressionists from the silent era, he allows Ture’s emphasis that “Black is Beautiful” and “All Power to All the People” to serve as a spoken word symphony that substitutes for the traditional pre-talkie soundtrack. It is here Stallworth is first awakened to pride in his own heritage and forced to confront the contradiction of his job as opposed to his skin.
The climax of the film is an extremely brilliant montage scene. In one room, Black students are lectured by a wizened Harry Belafonte (whose raspy, near-whispering voice is deafening) about when he witnessed a brutal lynching as a boy. Simultaneously, David Duke (played with a haunting whimsy by Topher Grace) initiates a new group of followers into the Klan, using perverted Christian symbolism and sacramentals to swear these men to their diabolical church. As a final crescendo, with Belafonte’s character explaining how film maker D.W. Griffith gave a second birth to the Klan, the initiates and their wives watch scenes from that very picture, BIRTH OF A NATION, which was the work that pioneered the exact montage styling Lee uses in these scenes. The white audience, enraptured and writhing with a ferocity akin to a Protestant revival meeting, is a model of the bestiality they accuse their opponents of, a genuine illustration of the Arab proverb “when you point one finger, three point back at you.”
To further elaborate upon plot points in a film that every Euro-American absolutely needs to see would be a waste of copy. I will say, however, that he includes several darkly ironic moments that nearly break the fourth wall to emphasize to the audience this is a movie about living in Trump-Land. Whether it is the chorus of Klansmen repeatedly chanting “America First”, another character saying “Make America Great Again”, or Stallworth and his supervising officer debating on how preposterous it would be for America to elect an adamant white nationalist to office, Lee drops his subtlety in these moments and hammers home, as he did by opening MALCOLM X with the footage of the Rodney King beating, that this is the history of today.
There is the important and known close of the film, when Lee smash-cuts from the 1970s into the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. His homage to Heather Heyer and her martyrdom is a heart-wrenching denouement that left my viewing companion and I in tears. I’m still pretty shaken up over Charlottesville for this reason. In March 1950, Trotskyist guru Max Shachtman debated the dethroned and sanctioned Communist Earl Browder on the nature of the Soviet Union. After reciting a litany of Stalin’s Communist victims, Shachtman exclaimed “There but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!” That sentiment is on my mind regularly when I see the footage of that Dodge Charger plowing through the crowd, but for an accident of geography would be any of my comrades or I that regularly take to the picket lines against forces such as these.
As a response to this film Boots Riley has come out with a critique of the picture, which he says a defending the police-industrial complex. I would disagree with him. I think the film ends in a way that demonstrates, despite attempted reforms by “good cops” like Stallworth, there’s no hope for such efforts. I could be wrong and I respect Riley as an artist enough to respect his opinion. But I would also suggest the film merits watching to allow the viewer to decide.