Writing in the Reader in 1991, Jonathan Rosenbaum compared Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever to “a kind of ‘living newspaper,’ where front-page stories exist in proximity to one another without necessarily linking up, and where it’s left to the audience to make some of the vital connections (or not, as the case may be).” This description fairly summarizes much of Lee’s work, for better and for worse. On the one hand, his movies are almost always timely and ambitious; on the other, his usual insistence on confronting as much of the zeitgeist as possible can make them feel overweening and rushed.
Lee’s vibrant docudrama BlacKkKlansman, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, is one of the director’s stronger films and—perhaps not coincidentally—one of his most focused. The narrative sticks to a just a couple of plotlines (a police investigation, a romance), and Lee manages to unify his various thematic concerns (subterfuge and sabotage, representations of blackness and whiteness in media, the political victory of Donald Trump), something he’s rarely done since Do the Right Thing (1989).
Like that earlier film, BlacKkKlansman is organized around feelings of anger. The dialogue abounds with bigoted sentiments, both heroes and villains are defined by what they hate, and the story crescendoes with an act of violence. And then there’s Lee’s rage at America’s political situation following Trump’s election, which influences the film’s conversations on race relations and prejudice. Even though the action takes place in the early 1970s, the director makes it clear that his characters are talking about the present when these sensitive subjects come up; he also concludes the film with news footage of white supremacists marching on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and violently attacking counterdemonstrators. Yet BlacKkKlansman never feels overwhelmed by its anger—it’s exciting, astute, and even funny at times.
Lee introduces the film’s hero, Ron Stallworth (who wrote the memoir on which the movie is based), as he’s starting work at the Colorado Springs Police Department. His superiors inform him that, as the first black man to serve in the department, he’ll likely face racial prejudice from some of his fellow officers. Ron claims he won’t be shaken. Sporting an Afro and the sort of outfit Richard Roundtree might have worn in Shaft (1971), he takes visible pride in his black identity. He’s also dead serious about enforcing the law; one intuits from the dialogue (and from John David Washington’s steely lead performance) his desire to channel his moral conviction into police work. Ron gets his chance when he casually calls up the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a white man interested in joining the organization. Suspecting that some of the members are up to foul play, he infiltrates the chapter through phone conversations and by sending his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), to meetings in his stead. Working together, they end up foiling an assassination attempt by one of the local Klansmen.
Early in the film, Ron’s superiors ask him to go undercover at a lecture delivered by Kwame Ture (ne Stokely Carmichael) at a local black student society. They say they want him to root out any potentially violent radicals, but it’s obvious that they also want to test Ron’s allegiance to the police force—they’re curious whether he’ll respond favorably to any of Ture’s radical rhetoric. Ron takes a shine to the head of the student society, Patrice (Laura Harrier), and after the lecture they start meeting regularly. Lee depicts the ensuing romance sweetly, offsetting the ugliness that Ron encounters in his interactions with the KKK. Moreover, the conversations between Ron and Patrice provide a platform for Lee (who wrote the script with Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel, and David Rabinowitz) to muse on aspects of black culture. During one date, the couple debate whether Shaft or Superfly is more successful when it comes to delivering black identification figures; during another, they return to some of Ture’s teachings.
Indeed most of the characters in BlacKkKlansman identify themselves through the media they consume. Ture, in his lecture, talks about developing antiblack sentiments as a boy from watching Tarzan beat up black “savages” in adventure serials. When Ron prepares Flip for his first face-to-face with KKK members, he advises his partner to list the white musicians he likes. The movie even opens with a scene from Gone With the Wind, which a white nationalist (Alec Baldwin) speaks over in a didactic short film disseminating racist ideology, and climaxes with an extended consideration of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, one of the most famous works of racism in cinema. Lee cuts between the local KKK chapter watching the movie (and cheering along to the onscreen persecution of blacks) and Patrice’s student group listening to a speech by an elderly activist (played by Harry Belafonte). The old man recalls the premiere of Birth of Nation and how it led directly a spike in KKK membership; this social history sets the stage for a personal reminiscence of watching a crowd of angry whites mutilate an innocent black man in his hometown. Lee wants to explain how images in popular culture have social and political consequences—a vital message when a white nationalist made popular by reality television holds the highest political office in the United States. v