SPIKE LEE TAKES ON WHITE SUPREMACY IN ‘BLACKkKLANSMAN’
By Greg Tate
August 9, 2018
At 61, Spike Lee is the most prolific Black filmmaker in world history since Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, the Godfather of self-starter indie cineastes made 44 features in his 33-year career. Spike has produced 32 feature-length projects in his three decades-plus at bat in the director’s chair, of which, BlacKkKlansman, his latest and among his most artistically satisfying narrative flicks in years, is also his most topical and politically incendiary since Malcolm X. And as always, it is stylistically signatory.
The French-Swiss Socialist filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, was once asked: What’s the most important element to consider when making a movie? To which Godard gave the anything but doctrinaire reply of: “The Money’’. But filmmakers who don’t figure out the paper chase don’t work much, no matter how anti-capitalist they are. Spike’s fellow New Yorker (and fellow Hollywood outsider) Woody Allen learned to always be in pre-production on the next project by the time the last one was hitting the screens. He didn’t always go to battle with the best script in mind, but Spike’s a-script-ain’t-nothing-but-a-number-of-pages attitude has served him well in racking up that thirty-sumptin’ large filmography.
That Spike has produced this volume in an industry known to disappear phenomenal Black filmmakers is no minor feat to be glossed over. He’s witnessed many a colleague made to appear one and done, then vanish without a trace. Race-man and balls-out fighter for Black Justice in front of the camera and behind, Spike was never going out like that. On a meta-level, Spike and BlacKkKlansman’s real-life heroic subject share something in common, they’re both spooks who not only spat inside the door but blew off its hinges in the process.
Adapted from retired Black policeman Ron Stallworth’s book, Black Klansman: A Memoir, about infiltrating a Colorado klatch of the KKK in the 1970s, Spike uses that historic launching pad to go for the jugular against two principal targets: the rabid face of organized racist violence in America today and that movement’s current titular figurehead in the Oval office. Spike entertains, enrages, enlightens and horrifies us with a tight procedural account of Stallworth’s journey into the absurd danger zone of KKK white male bonding. In the process he also revives the bond between early Hollywood and The Klan that began with Birth of a Nation (1915), and reveals that the Klan remains as anti-Jewish as it is anti-Black.
The film benefits from two charismatic leads in John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, and Adam Driver, as a fellow detective who plays his proxy in the Klan-duping operation. Driver’s character also allows for an interrogation of modern Jewish assimilation into All-American whiteness. One of the film’s more crazed and tense scenes finds Driver’s character prodded at gun point to submit to a lie-detector test because of suspicions about his ethic identity — a moment which also raises the prospect of his penis being checked for Aryan purity.
That Stallworth and his proxy were able to pull off the discrepancy between their voices while undercover, would loom as a plot hole in a made-up-tale, but Stallworth recalls the issue only coming up once and being instantly quashed by claims of a sinus condition. In scenes like these, Spike gets to eat his cake and have at his targets too, lampooning the clownish Klan membership’s hate-blinded idiocy — repeatedly shown to cross class, status, educational and political sophistication lines — while never failing to remind us that clowns can effectively commit terrorism too. As well, Spike subtly informs that those clown foot soldiers and invisible puppet masters work at the highest levels of American law enforcement, governance and military-industrial power. And that they’ll exploit, enable or dispose of their low-men buffers as needed, while defending the machinations of global white supremacy.
The scaffolding of Stallworth’s take also allows Spike to restore spewing of the word “nigger” to its original context and intention as a rhetorical act of terrorism. After a quarter century of the word being neutered and gratuitously exploited for titillation and gain by three generations of market-savvy rappers and Quentin Tarantino, Spike reunites the word with its original framers and defamers. Nobody’s term of endearment can be heard in the crossfire volleys of the epithet that flies, frequently, in BlacKkKlansman, and any white rap-fan who leaves the film still craving their right to spit “nigger” too, will at least know what fine, familial company they share amongst The Klan, both yesterday’s and todays Tiki-torch-wielding, assault-vehicle models. The latter make an appearance in the citizen reported footage of the infamous alt-right march in Charlottesville, one year ago, which pointedly synchronizes with the film’s release.
BlackKkKlans also parallels two romantic relationships, one involving Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), a Sieg Heil-ready hausfrau and wife of Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most frothing mad of the Klan group; the other love thing goes on between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a vintage Angela-afroed militant student leader. The most plot-rigging deviation from actual events occurs around those two women’s arcs but in the case of Harrier’s Patrice, her staunch presence and argumentative agency make for a marked advance in Spike’s much-critiqued handling of sister’s as three-dimensional archetypes onscreen.
Since Spike arrived on the scene with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, he’s witnessed a few boom-and-bust cycles of Black filmmaking. As a longtime follower of his development and accomplishments it’s gratifying to see him return to fighting form and currency in a time when his cinematic progeny — Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Boots Riley, Terence Nash, Daveed Diggs — are on the rise and redefining Black rage, diversity, independence, and innovation in the medium. To quote the prophet LL Cool J, “The Godfathers [back] in the house giving blessings to his children.’’
Greg Tate is a writer and musician who thrives on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. His latest book is Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader.