Cinematically, 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 Black Panther is not a film with radical politics. Little of its essence risks true confrontation, and that’s part of its reason for existing. It just wanted, and triumphantly scored, a seat at the establishment’s table.
For Spike Lee, however, confrontation has not only been desirable but on-brand. And while it would be reductive to ignore the less inherently political trademarks of “a Spike Lee joint”—film school cinephilia, theater, 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 gotten more attention for the media-fueled public tiffs he’s landed in than for the actual movies he’s made.
BlacKkKlansman, about a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is being hailed as a career highlight and return to form, and rightly so. It is a fittingly brash approach to docudrama, part comedy and part cop movie, with focused and attentive storytelling, a mash of tones, and a cast worth using. John David Washington plays the cop, Detective Ron Stallworth. Adam Driver plays the white partner who serves as his in-person front. And, in a nice casting touch, an appropriately milquetoast, non-ubermensch Topher Grace plays Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
But I fear that it isn’t just that Lee and his collaborators, including producer Jordan Peele, 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 on topicality. And, as a (white liberal) cinephile, I have less use for the 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, who end 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 method and the scope; this is all “based on a true story,” and not often does that phrase so shrewdly 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 explicitly 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, period-piece artifice, an Alec Baldwin comedy sketch (hello, Trump-era Left), a debate about Shaft and Superfly, and a grave Harry Belafonte appearance into a clash of history lesson and self-conscious cinematic fictionalization. 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 BlacKkKlansman 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 cinematic suspense and crowd-pleasing comic triumph, which, tellingly, have both drawn criticism and 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 the mechanisms of commercial cinema are its blunt-force weapon of choice.
What is the film’s agenda? Not having Trump in the White House would be nice, but the film is under no illusions that the problem began with his political career or will end with it. The film’s perspective is expansive rather than myopic: its subject is a continuum larger than Trump, Stallworth, David Duke, the black power movement, the modern police force, and cinema itself. It starts already 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 you should feel shaken, nauseous, and a bit conflicted at how the movie got you there. If its tactics rub you the wrong way, run with that feeling, because dismissing it would be even worse. Its value is to make visceral what might otherwise be safely removed into history or theory. It’s rousing because it never gives in to empty fatalism but sure as shit won’t offer easy answers. 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. Amidst uncertainty and conflict, a dance scene is sublime.