Cinematically speaking, 2018 began with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, whose runaway success occasioned think-pieces, analysis, praise, and/or criticism from everyone from Slavoj Žižek to random bloggers (including an after-the-fact one by yours truly). It’s certainly worth considering what that movie and its phenomenon mean, because no matter who its superhero is named after, Black Panther is not a film with radical politics. Almost none of it is truly confrontational, a lot of it is the opposite, and that’s part of its reason for existing. It’s not anti-establishment; it just wanted, and scored, a seat at the establishment’s table.
For Spike Lee, however, confrontation has typically been on-brand. And while it would be reductive to ignore the less overtly political trademarks of “a Spike Lee joint”—film school cinephilia, theatrical performance, sexuality, musical numbers, a hometown boy’s love of New York City—it would also not be unfair to say that for the last decade or so, Lee has drawn more attention for the public tiffs he’s landed in than for the actual movies he’s made.
BlacKkKlansman is being hailed as a career highlight and return to form, and rightly so. Jordan Peele, on hand as producer, pitched it to Lee in what Lee called “very high-concept” terms: “black man infiltrates KKK.” The man was Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police officer who made contact with the Klan in the 1970s. John David Washington plays Stallworth, who is at first assigned to investigate black college activists before turning department resources to the local KKK chapter. Adam Driver plays the white officer who serves as his in-person front. And, in a fine touch of casting, an appropriately milquetoast non-ubermensch Topher Grace plays Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
The result is a fittingly brash approach to docudrama: part comedy, part cop movie, and part sociological horror show. But I fear that it isn’t just that Lee and his collaborators have been inspired to make a terrific film, but that mainstream American political life has given them the context in which to do so. This is 2018: our public discourse has long since blown passed preaching to the choir and is focused on galvanizing it instead. Into this rabid media landscape comes Lee, with a younger man’s passion and, crucially, an older man’s wariness. And it seems to me that of all the unsubtle statements for our unsubtle time, BlacKkKlansman has the distinction of being one of the subtler—or at least, one with some of the richest ideas. It’s not a masterpiece, for those keeping score. Yet no other American film so far this year is as worth talking about.
It certainly doesn’t hold back its thoughts on our era. And, as a (white liberal) cinephile, I have less use for the redneck villains’ explicit Trumpisms—”America First”, returning the country to “greatness”—than I do for the comparatively nuanced dialectic between the hero and his radical student girlfriend (Laura Harrier), who spend the film in an unresolved and unresolvable argument about whether or not the system can be peaceably reformed from within. (One scene references the term “super-predators”, a racially-charged quote that you may remember haunted a 2016 candidate—and it wasn’t Donald Trump). Those are the politics, but then there’s the scope and the method. This is all “based on a true story”, and not often does that phrase so shrewdly or brazenly contextualize itself.
That is, in addition to being a comedy, a cop movie, and the best script Lee has gotten his hands on in years, BlacKkKlansman is something else. It is a movie about movies, from the rose-tinted Confederate nostalgia of Gone With the Wind to the racist frenzy of Birth of a Nation to the complex legacy of blaxploitation. As a comedy or cop drama, it’s solid. As a pastiche of where pop culture and politics overlap, it achieves a lucid agitation, mixing the Old Hollywood canon, contemporary documentary footage, genre kicks, an Alec Baldwin comedy sketch (hello, Trump-era SNL), and a debate about Shaft vs. Superfly into a clash of history lesson and self-conscious cinematic fictionalization. It’s vital, then, to see Lee not just as a storyteller but an archivist. The use of Birth and Wind can suggest that if the white villains of BlacKkKlansman seem like inhuman caricatures of white hicks (and they are), it’s not as if Hollywood’s representation of the black community has historically been balanced. When Washington and Harrier hit the dance floor to the tune of “Too Late to Turn Back Now”, it’s the film’s most beautiful moment not because it’s their love affair with each other, but because it’s the movie’s love affair with a space they can call their own. And when Harry Belafonte appears in an extended cameo, the instant gravity comes not from who he plays—a civil rights leader who is, I gather, a fictional composite—but from who he is. This is the American screen as a hall of mirrors, some ostensibly clear, some proudly idealized, and some grotesquely distorted, with the insistence that each reflection be taken seriously.
So the best way to view this “very high-concept” movie is as a movie that knows it’s a movie, and that certain pleasures and dangers are its heritage. It wildly embellishes its true story with scenes of made-up suspense and crowd-pleasing comic triumph—and tellingly, the scenes that have drawn criticism as such also got applause from the theater I saw it at in West LA. But the whole experience, particularly the controversy-inviting ending, asks you to be careful where you try to draw the line between what’s “just a movie” and what’s something more. BlacKkKlansman is structured literally as connective tissue between Hollywood myth and your newsfeed, and you should beware, because anything that’s “just a movie” can be quickly taken away.
What is the film’s agenda? Not having Trump in the White House would be nice, but BlacKkKlansman is under no illusions that the problem began with his political career or will end with it. Considering what a target it has in President #45, the film’s perspective is expansive rather than narrow: its subject is a continuum, and Trump, Stallworth, Duke, the black power movement, the modern police force, and the movie business are all just parts of it. The film saves its key image for the end: Washington and Harrier moving down a hallway with their guns drawn, one in the name of the law, one in the name of her community, and both confronting a threat that might only go into remission for so long before it comes back again.
This places Lee back in the place where the political side of his cinema is at its most rewarding: confrontations and contrasts without easy, simple solutions. Solutions are close to reassurance, and no provocateur worthy of the name would peddle such a thing. BlacKkKlansman‘s accomplishment as cinema is to make visceral what might otherwise be removed into the world of history or theory. If its tactics rub you the wrong way, run with that feeling, because dismissing it would be even worse. It starts close to the edge of what’s comfortable for laughter or suspense (or even choir-preaching), and by the end has gone so far beyond that that you should feel shaken and a bit conflicted at how you got there. And it says, among other things, that laughing at an Alec Baldwin skit won’t do a damn thing. A clarion call for its audience if there ever was one.
BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters around the country.