' ' Cinema Romantico: BlacKkKlansman

Monday, September 10, 2018


Is it any wonder that Spike Lee would be drawn to the true-life tale of “BlacKkKlansman”, in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became, in 1972, the first black Colorado Springs police officer? Stallworth sought to elicit change from within an institution that Black America has long viewed with suspicion; Lee has never shied away from laying the oft un-inclusive Hollywood industry bare. The first image of “BlacKkKlansman”, in fact, is not an image from “BlacKkKlansman” at all but one from Hollywood’s famous ode to the Old South, “Gone with the Wind”, followed directly by clips from “Birth of a Nation” (original title: The Clansman). Lee deliberately connects, as Ava DuVernay did in her documentary “13th”, the institutional rot of Hollywood with America, which denotes Lee’s intentions as larger than simply re-telling Stallworth’s admittedly scintillating story of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. And that is why Lee mostly employs Stallworth’s memoir as an outline, eschewing narrative cinema for a movie of ideas and images, and employing the movie’s oft-exaggerated tone to intensify its reality.

Precisely what drives Ron to be a cop is something of an oversight, his backstory a big fat blank, just showing up at the CSPD to apply, a scene where those interviewing him are seen first, underscoring the inevitable forthcoming scrutiny. In that way, Ron is not unlike James Meredith enrolling at Ole Miss, who saw himself less an individual seeking an education than a symbol making a point. Granted, this lack of dimension somewhat counteracts the philosophical quandary of Ron’s belief in the role of policing despite so many African-American attitudes to the contrary, but the follow through in which the bad apples theory of policing is first embraced and then rejected still rings true. Washington’s performance sells the character anyway, evincing affliction but also allowing a distinct joyfulness to filter through that anguish, a juxtaposition in tune with the movie’s alternating drama and comicality.

To that last point, his undercover scheme is both presented and played as something of a lark, with Ron flipping through a local newspaper and coming across a Klan recruiting ad. So, he dials them up, not even bothering to conceal his identity, a true fact forcing him to enlist fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), white and Jewish, to assume the identity of Ron Stallworth to go undercover. If the obvious dramatic connotations this might elicit are occasionally present, Lee mostly dispenses with those to hone in on notions of identity and voice. Indeed, even as Flip plays the part of Ron, the real Ron keeps taking phone calls from the Klan, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), a sly flouting of the oft-touted, always unbelievable idea that people don’t see color.

“BlacKkKlansman” sees color. That’s why Ron’s superior, Chief Bridges, a deft turn by Robert John Burke of grudging empathy, assigns his young charge to covertly patrol a local Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) rally where the film momentarily gives itself over to the pulpit. If Ture’s oration touches multiple bases, it is highlighted by him imploring the audience to chant “Black is beautiful”, which Lee accentuates with shots of black faces against a blacked-out backdrop staring directly into the camera, reveling in the beauty of their dark skin, cinematic evocations of a Charles White portrait. Later, after Ture and the Black Student Union activists who have helped put on the rally are pulled over and threatened, Lee allows the characters a brief reprieve through a jubilant dance sequence. If his tableau of black faces pushes back against the notion of blackness being ugly, this semi-sing-along to the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose pushes back against daft Angry Black Man stereotype to which Lee himself has so often been subjected.

At the rally is where Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), an activist in the local chapter of the Black Student Union. Though she dismisses police as “pigs”, which unsettles him despite keeping his identity secret, their relationship never really crackles with tension, sexual or otherwise. It is more like a conduit for political thought, which makes them feel like a couple students working more on an intellectual level than an amorous one, like differing opinions about the worth of Blaxplotiation movies leading Patrice to cite DuBois’s theory of double consciousness, of African-Americans only seeing themselves through the lens of an oppressive society, both sides of which Ron deliberately inhabits.

That sort of dimension is conspicuously lacking in the film’s presentation of the Klan, not all of whom are caricatures necessarily but are fairly one-note in their hatred nonetheless, leaving a little too much space for cheap liberal laughs. Though these Klansman hatch a bomb plot, the capper is not the eventual explosion so much as a sequence cribbed from The Jerky Boys with a long shot punchline where the Grand Wizard of the KKK is made to look like Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students, his cheese left out in the wind, signaling what Lee thinks of them. Then again, this Klan chapter is dismissed several times as a clownish fringe organization unable to manage the terror they seek to unleash even as they come close to pulling it off anyway. Ignore them, in other words, and they will not merely melt away but hang around, which is why the concluding clips of the tragic 2017 events in Charlottesville, Virginia are not auteurist indulgence but evidence.

“BlacKkKlansman’s” most powerful passage involves a KKK initiation where members munch on popcorn while screening “Birth of a Nation”, hooting and hollering, as Lee mimics Griffith’s famous cross-cutting technique by switching back and forth between this white supremacist spectacle and a Black Student Union event where an activist, Jerome Turner, speaks. If at first this seems like a counter-myth being raised to combat “Birth of a Nation’s”, it is notable that Turner is played by Harry Belafonte, a real-life black activist, and that the lynching he recounts is the one of Jesse Washington in 1916. This is not myth; this is real; this is Spike Lee ramming the two together until all that we can see, so long as we choose to look, is what’s right in front of us.

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