BlacKkKlansman: Melancholic Provocation

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

**** (out of 4)

Back in 1989, several prominent commentators, such as David Denby and Joe Klein, predicted (incorrectly) that Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing would incite riots. Since then, reviewers have invariably used charged adjectives – “provocative,” “fiery,” “angry” are some of the more popular ones – to describe Lee’s work. Summing up the general consensus, one writer for The Guardian recently went so far as to call Lee “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film.”

In reality, however, people who call Lee’s films polemical or incendiary are only telling half the story. As fiery as Lee’s movies can be, their outward rage belies their subtler, more melancholic reflections on whether interracial unity is a realizable ideal. Look beyond his vehement, sardonic critiques of racism, in other words, and you’ll find that Lee is at heart a tormented romantic. He’d like to believe that “we can all get along,” but he’s all too aware of the way prejudice, self-interest, and historical ignorance usually prevent us from doing so. It’s this tension between idealism and reality – and Lee’s attempts to square the two – that lies at the core of many of Lee’s best works.

Image courtesy of Universal.

A few examples will help illustrate my point. Do The Right Thing, Lee’s best-known film, is usually remembered for its riot sequence, a depiction of urban discontent that constitutes a scathing denunciation of police brutality. Yet in contrast to the undisguised indignation on display in that particular sequence, most of the film is in fact devoted to a loving, gently comical portrayal of a multiracial Brooklyn neighborhood. Furthermore, the riot sequence is followed by a scene in which the neighborhood DJ issues a plaintive appeal to his listeners: “Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?”

Perhaps the best way to understand Do The Right Thing is to look at the two clashing quotes that Lee places at its conclusion. The first one comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel lecture, and it states that “violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” Meanwhile, the other one comes from a speech by Malcolm X in which he claimed that “I am not against using violence in self-defense [against racists]. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” In Do The Right Thing, Lee strongly suggests that he wants to agree with King. But in the face of authority-sponsored bigotry, he feels he has no choice but to adopt Malcolm X’s more confrontational approach instead. The narrative of Do The Right Thing is defined by this reluctant abandonment of an ideal, and this abandonment gives the overall film a searching, deeply despairing tone.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

From here, it’d also be instructive to look at Malcolm X (1992), Lee’s sweeping biopic of the minister and activist. Per Lee’s telling, Malcolm was a man who went from preaching black separatism to advocating integration. Yet as the movie shows us, Malcolm’s efforts on behalf of the latter met nothing but resistance: whites thought he was a demagogue, while blacks affiliated with the Nation of Islam condemned his abandonment of separatism. Additionally, the film’s opening, which features footage of Rodney King’s beating, suggests that racism remains a potent and oft-underestimated obstacle to Malcolm’s vision of a world where “people of all colors…[act as] one humanity.” Ultimately, then, Lee portrays Malcolm as a lonely, misunderstood martyr whose attempts to achieve interracial harmony couldn’t overcome deep-seated forces of bigotry. The film is most known for a shot in which an American flag burns into the shape of an X, but as with Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X’s most striking images don’t reflect the somber and anguished feel of its overall narrative.

Even Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), a film that’s ostensibly not about race per se, can’t help but dwell on the foregoing gap between ideals and reality. As a movie made in the aftermath of 9/11, 25th Hour offers a stark illustration of the damage that the attacks inflicted on New York. The film’s characters all seem lonely and lost, as though they were beset by a form of spiritual malaise. Yet instead of coming together and trying to overcome their despair in a collective manner, the characters find it easier to lash out at each other instead. In Lee’s eyes, the New York community (and, by extension, the greater American one as well) is held back by a “blame thy neighbor” mentality, a mentality that manifests itself in Monty’s infamous “F*** everyone” rant against “Sikhs,” “Pakistanis,” “Puerto Ricans,” “Korean grocers,” and other groups. As with Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, 25th Hour’s belief in communal harmony thus stands in sharp opposition to the fragmented, bitter reality it actually depicts.

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Lee’s newest movie, BlacKkKlansman, tells the (true) story of a black detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. While the premise might remind you of Dave Chappelle’s classic Bigsby skit, the film is not so much a comedy as a satirical meditation, a follow-up to Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and their reflections on the aforementioned ideal-reality tension. Ron, after all, is a man who tries to act as a sort of “bridge” between different racial communities. On the one hand, he clearly supports the goals of the Black Power movement: during one telling sequence, we watch as he listens in rapt attention to a speech that Stokely Carmichael delivers at a rally. Yet at the same time, Ron also happens to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, a largely white organization whose members frequently use their power to mistreat the black community.

Unfortunately, however, Ron’s farsighted attempts to bring about interracial unity eventually run up against his peers’ frustrating intransigence. Upon learning he’s an undercover detective for the “pigs,” Ron’s black girlfriend (Laura Harrier) reacts with disgust. And in the police force, he regularly has to put up with both conscious and unconscious forms of racist treatment. In a testament to the barriers that Ron faces, the film features a scene in which we initially watch a group of Black Power activists chant “black power”; Lee then immediately cuts to a shot in which a group of KKK members repeatedly holler “white power” instead. This juxtaposition powerfully illustrates the seeming ineradicability of American racial divisions – a cruel reality that BlacKkKlansman constantly struggles to reconcile with Ron’s personal ideals.

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

BlacKkKlansman has generated a lot of discussion for its ending, which features footage from last year’s Charlottesville protests. While many have rightly claimed that this is Lee’s way of protesting Trump, that’s not all the film’s conclusion is in context. Just before it, in fact, we see that Ron’s life undergoes a major U-turn. One minute, he’s the man of the moment: his anti-KKK operation was a success, the police officer who assaulted his girlfriend is behind bars, and his once-hostile white colleagues eagerly embrace him as one of their own. Flash forward a couple of scenes, however, and everything’s changed: the anti-KKK operation has been conveniently discontinued due to “budget cuts,” Ron’s abruptly been laid off, and the KKK has staged a cross burning outside his apartment. In mere seconds of movie time, in short, a semblance of interracial harmony is attained – only to then be abruptly, irrevocably shattered. The Charlottesville footage, in that sense, isn’t just a narrow denunciation of Trump; rather, it serves as a larger lament about bigotry’s disheartening resilience.

It might sound like BlacKkKlansman simply rehashes ideas that Lee already tackled in Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour. But leaving aside the fact that the four films vastly differ in terms of scope, structure, and narrative, it’s hard to fault Lee for being a bit repetitive. When Malcolm X was released, Rodney King’s beating was fresh in America’s memory. Now, we’re still grappling with the deaths of men like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. And while Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X were released during a presidency that partially owed its existence to a racist campaign ad, we now have a leader who openly refuses to condemn white supremacists. In that sense, BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s reminder that the problems exposed in Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour remain unsolved – that we remain a country unable to honestly confront, much less eliminate, the plague of racism. 29 years after Mookie threw a trash can into Sal’s pizza parlor, we’re nowhere closer to figuring out if we’re gonna live together or not.

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

***

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Running Time: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.”

Produced by: Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Shaun Redick

Written and Directed by: Spike Lee