Directed by: Spike Lee Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Lee,
Going into BlacKkKlansman I knew the film had been the subject of a public exchange between Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, and the film’s own director Spike Lee. I opted not to read the exchange before seeing the movie and I think that was the the right decision. I’ll elaborate on that later.
BlacKkKlansman opens with a depiction of a southern political figure filming a racist rant (with stylistic reference to Bill O’Reilly’s “fuck it we’ll do it live” clip). The film’s main story than begins with the caption “this joint is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.”
I should clarify that while I’m glad I didn’t read the Boots Riley-Spike Lee exchange before seeing the movie, I’m glad I knew it happened. BlacKkKlansman’s (second) opening scene is one of its strongest, and it bears decent resemblance to the opening of Sorry to Bother You. Both scenes depict job interviews, border on fourth-wall breaking and address social issues. Furthermore, the characters in both scenes do not suppress themselves, instead cooly acknowledging the social dynamics at play. In the context of BlacKkKlansman, this sets up a quasi-cartoonish affect (the cartoonishness of Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle).
The film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) does not come across as your typical cop. Rarely seen in a uniform, his out-of-placeness is immistakable. This is one of the reasons why the “this is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” tagline is important. Through this seemingly cartoonish depiction, Lee and Washington portray just how out of place a black cop can feel and how subversive hiring a black cop in Colorado Springs in the 1970s was (or at least could have been).
The film quickly depicts Stallworth’s emergence on the force. He is seen working in a files room where he expresses discomfort with the dehumanizing way his fellow officers talk about (black) convicts. He eventually works his way up into the intelligence unit, only to find out that this line of work involves spying on black activists. Black KkKlansman however is merciful to its protagonist, giving him the conviction and luck to work his way out of these assignments and into a position where he can do what he wants (and what he seemingly joined the police to do): to spy on the Klan.
The middle of the film introduces Ron to Black Panther-inspired Black Student Association leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a number of Klan members (Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold and Paul Walter Hauser). Patrice is a bit of caricature, and the Klan members, while not caricatures, can feel cartoonish, especially from the perspective of a naïve liberal viewer. The Klan cast is further embellished by the presence of one of their folksy but equally racist wives, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). As Lee builds the universe of 1970s Colorado Springs, we are introduced to one larger-than-life event after another and again it is all “fo’ real.”
In addition to working as a compelling aesthetic, Lee’s “you wouldn’t believe this shit”-realism also sheds an interesting light on the present. The film makes numerous unsubtle allusions to the Trump era, and while that in itself may not make for original satire, what the script cleverly does is expose the evolution of racism from the over the top rhetoric of the Klan do the dog-whistles of Trump: in other words it shows how shit you wouldn’t believe becomes shit that’s all too believeable.
Overall BlacKkKlansman is an enjoyable work, though I believe it wavers a bit in what its vision is. Unlike some of Lee’s other works it follows a dramatic and conventional plot arc. Given its topic one might think its writers had an Oscar-esque vision(it’s worth noting Lee did not write the original pitch). This clashes a bit with what I see as BlacKkKlansman’s more Sorry to Bother You-like (perhaps Brechtian) vision. Lee’s version of Ron Stallworth is a black man who joins a police force, despite knowing all to well that that is a bad idea. On top of that, this character seems to do so with the sole vision of using his police powers to fight racism, trying to avoid less comfortable police assignments like narcotics and spying on radicals Stallworth, in other words, is an amusing, though topical, comic-book hero. This part of his character is undermined by the Oscar-y side of BlacKkKlansman. Near the end of the film, Stallworth confesses that he’s always wanted to be a cop. With this line we’re robbed of an understanding of Stallworth as a gutsy activist who uses a police job to achieve his own heroic ends. Instead we’re told what we’ve watched is the liberal feel-good story of a cop who made his dreams come true and made a police department a little better.
Not all of BlacKkKlansman’s more Oscarish elements are for the worst. The film’s secondary protagonist, Officer Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) forms an unlikely bond with Stallworth as he comes to realize the ways he is both white and not-white in the eyes of the Klan. While his moral development is subtle, he is undoubtedly one of the film’s most compelling characters. Also interesting is the Klan member who ends up being the leading villain: a character driven not so much by the Klan’s ideology but by a search for validation from one of its members.
I said at the beginning of this review that I’m glad I knew about the Riley-Lee debate but hadn’t read it before seeing the movie. I knew that Riley was unhappy that an anti-racist film could portray police in a heroic light, and in some ways I found that to be a valid criticism. The film includes a minor subplot about a “bad apple” cop, arguably distracting from the view that police department racism extends beyond individuals. Otherwise, however, I came up with what felt like a satisfying defence of Lee’s approach. There’s a scene in BlacKkKlansman in which Patrice says she is ok with black cops in blacksploitation films because these characters are “fantasies.” I read this scene as a wink to the audience about BlacKkKlansman’s intent: to create a serious movie, but one with a cartoonish hero whose tale is not representative of cops in general.
When I looked up Lee’s reaction to Riley’s comment, however, I was disappointed. The reaction was seemingly a single line in an interview in which he said “look at my films, they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt.” This kind of response misses the point as to why many see the police as an innately racist institution. The systemic racism of police forces is based on the following premises:
- The police are an institution whose mandate is to enforce laws and security and therefore they spy on (often racialized) organizations they suspect are too critical of the status quo.
- Police forces largely developed to control protestors, enforce slavery in America, etc, rather than to “serve and protect” the public. This mandate may have evolved over time but its hard to think it does not continue to (consciously or not) influence the collective mentality of police forces.
- Cops are hired to arrest people and occasionally exercise other forms of violence. Therefore, even if they aren’t all consciously racist, they aren’t likely to be hippies either.
- Certain kinds of crime (eg theft) may flourish in marginalized communities since marginalization creates need. Therefore, police who regularly patrol these communities aren’t “bad apples” per se, but they nonetheless re-enforce the alienation of marginalized people from society.
- Finally, police forces as currently constructed are key actors in an incarceration based justice system. Incarcerating people, again, further alienates them from society and traps them in cycles of poverty and violence.
In short, Lee’s argument that not all police are corrupt may in a way be true, but it dodges the deeper ideological issue that Riley hints at in his criticism.
Riley argues that contrary to the film’s claim BlacKkKlansman is not “fo’ real.” He notes that the real Ron Stallworth appears to have been less critical of mainstream police work than his fictional counterpart and that Phillip Zimmerman didn’t exist, amongst other things (I’ll link to Riley’s criticism here, but note that it contains spoilers). To me the question of whether this matters depends on whether you chose to separate the art from the artist (or at least the artist’s recent, presumably oversimplified, portrayal of his belief). BlacKkKlansman, judged as a film in isolation is not nearly as pro-cop as Riley suggests. Its hero crew (Stallworth, Zimmerman and Jimmy Creek) often hang out in a side room of their own, dressed in street clothes, reducing the degree to which you think of them as cops. Additionally, through characters like Patrice and Kwame Ture aka Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), BlacKkKlansman undoubtedly portrays radical critiques of the police in a sympathetic light.
BlacKkKlansman has funny moments, Where’s-Waldo-moments (spot the brothers of two famous Hollywood actors, and Eric Forman from That 70s Show) and ends with a powerful illustration of the Klan’s contemporary legacy. It’s absolute worth seeing, just remember to have a nuanced view of when it’s “fo’ real” and when it’s “a fantasy.”