It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which In genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.