Film Review: Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman
The sensation of watching Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was quite the experience. Much like has been reported at the film’s world premiere in Cannes, the audience at its first post-Cannes screening at the Sydney Film Festival was significantly white. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with white audiences wanting to see this film. It is, after all, the much-anticipated return of one of America’s most vital filmmakers with a film that is extremely topical and relevant.
But it’s interesting because this will be Lee’s first film to receive a theatrical release in Australian cinemas in twelve years. He hasn’t necessarily been making a stream of bad movies – although of those that I have seen, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is very bad. Rather he has been working on projects that have less of a natural home in the cinema. As an Oscar-nominated documentarian for 4 Little Girls in 1997, he has broken out more and more into non-fiction with When the Levees Broke and two works about Michael Jackson – Bad 25 and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. His television reboot of She’s Gotta Have It has proven to be a success, and it’s unfortunate more Australian’s aren’t able to see Chi-Raq given it was send direct to Amazon Prime and is not available anywhere else.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, at times sounding so identical to his dad Denzel it’s eerie) is hired in 1971 as the first African American policeman in Colorado Springs. He works the files department away from any real responsibility, copping barely disguised racism from colleagues. When his determination coupled with his race makes him a perfect undercover cop for a meeting of the local Black Students Union, he is promoted. Now a detective, he remarkably decides to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. Using his colleague Flip (Adam Driver) as the face and himself as the voice, they ingratiate themselves into the KKK and get onside of none other than future United States presidential candidate David Duke (Topher Grace).
"The savagery that Lee is capable of shaved down for a demographic less accustomed the evolving, bold electricity of Do the Right Thing or Bamboozled..."
Such as they are, the tricky economics of political filmmaking has resulted in a film that is decidedly much broader and more mainstream than one may have initially suspected with such a ripe premise in the hands of a director like Spike Lee. This version of BlacKkKlansman is no doubt likely to reach a wider audience, but the rage of his best works feels stimied. The savagery that Lee is capable of shaved down for a demographic that aren't accustomed to the evolving, bold electricity of Do the Right Thing or Bamboozled and instead in many ways resembles something closer to a Saturday Night Live sketch. Or maybe more accurately, Mad TV with more polish.
For a film that trades in such fiercely potent material, sitting in a cinema and watching these characters make thinly-veiled references to Donald Trump and his MAGA rhetoric comes off as somewhat juvenile, too often so obvious that they elicited groans and eyerolls. David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott and Lee’s screenplay (an amalgamation of two different writing teams, and it shows) all but pauses for effect anytime somebody says something that has a particularly contemporary connotation as if to give that guy (you know the one) a chance to elbow you in a ribs and ask “geddit?”. And it starts early, too, with the Shaft font and the music and extends on through to the white characters that are so dumb and overtly evil that the film doesn’t once seem to allow its audience the opportunity to question their own place in it all.
Like I suspected post-screening, Miriam Bale for W Magazine – one of only two black American critic at Cannes – suggests the response from African Americans may be trickier to pin down. Also referencing a certain sketch-show style (note: I read Bale’s piece after writing my own thoughts) put down to co-producer Jordan Peele’s influence, Bale notes that the standing ovation it received at Cannes was likely more for the way Lee “[reminds] viewers that there is a cartoonish racist in the White House right now”, before asking “But do we need reminding?” Upon its theatrical release in America, similar reviews have emerged. Candice Frederick’s review at Slate is headlined “Spike Lee Has Made a Black Movie for White Audiences – And That’s Okay”.
That’s not to say there aren’t genuine laughs that work as structural jokes. In fact, the central narrative device of Washington’s Dtv Stallworth speaking to David Duke over the phone, builds and builds to the most satisfying of the whole film. Still, I sat there watching BlacKkKlansman and felt uncomfortable being asked to laugh at all of this when I have no skin in this particular game. It made me feel sad and a little perplexed.
So often Lee’s films deal with the struggle within communities. How do people handle things when the call is coming from inside the house so to speak. It’s in these parts that BlacKkKlansman is at its strongest. There is a verve to the scenes in which Ron is undercover with the Black Student Union and has his beliefs challenged, struggling with ideas and concepts he has perhaps never heard verbalised quite so eloquently. His to-and-fro with anti-police Patrice (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Laura Harrier who is fantastic), their debates about the ethics of supporting the police bubbling with both anger and sexual chemistry, are captivating. A sequence with civil rights activist and artist Harry Belafonte flanked by black power is Lee at his simple, refined best.
But BlacKkKlansman is obviously about the more full-throated segments of racist America. The KKK, the Nazis, the white nationalists. This is most obvious in its concluding moments that veer into non-fiction with news footage of the Charlottesville march with its chants of “Jews will not replace us” in a sea of white polo shirts and tiki torches. We then see video of drivers ploughing into protesters and the movie is then dedicated to Heather Heyer, which is understandable but also raises further questions. Seeing these on a big screen is really something. I almost wish Lee had made a documentary instead (BlacKkKlansman was filmed before those events).
The film is often stylish (although the costume design does has that very particular odd cinematic quality of looking as if everybody purchased their wardrobe the day before the story takes place) and is really well-acted. I have no doubts that this will play well with audiences for the very reasons I feel it is lacking. Audiences will surely have a good laugh at these pathetic dolts of the KKK in the same way white audiences laughed at the exaggerated portrayals of African Americans in Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, but as satire the jokes aren’t as witty as they should be. And as a work of political filmmaking it feels oddly congenial, lobbing grenades at low-hanging fruit. Its repurposing of a scene from Gone with the Wind is the closest it gets to chastising America for the low-key racism often found in popular culture. And then Alec Baldwin shows up as a bumbling racist named Dr Kennebrew Beaureguard for some reason. The finished product ultimately feels like that most rare of Spike Lee joints – blunted.