I like to think of myself as a formalist. And Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman is by most angles formally and aesthetically sound, with a brilliant leitmotif by Terence Blanchard that varies in tempo and key depending on the mood and tone of a given scene and radically propulsive editing by his regular Barry Alexander Brown. I mean, it would have to be at least some amount of aesthetically distinct to win Lee the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do I find myself put off by the actual content of a film if the film attached works extremely well as cinema and Lee has long proven himself one of the most adept directors in utilizing cinematic tools to amplify his attitude and using his vast knowledge of film history as one of the industry’s resident scholars to turn the medium’s ugliness against itself.* I frankly think BlacKkKlansman is a movie where he accomplishes this, so I do walk away thinking it’s a good movie.
But – and this is where I have to admit Lee is infinitely more qualified to tell how angry is “angry enough” when it comes to the United States’ atmosphere of racism – I don’t think BlacKkKlansman is angry enough and that’s disappointing to me.
To my knowledge, the script was originally written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz until Spike Lee joined last September, apparently rewriting a part of the script with Kevin Willmott (who worked with Lee on his previous film, Chi-Raq). The parts Lee and Willmott rewrote are easy to pick out and I’m not sure they outnumber Wachtel and Rabinowitz’s contribution. For there are moments that full of an unmistakable charge towards racism in America (particularly the lecture prologue on the scientific proof of white supremacy by an unflattered Alec Baldwin feels entirely like something I’d expect if I saw C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and only its being preceded by a famous shot in 1930s cinema is what prevents me from assuming it’s all Willmott), but there’s also a lot of neutral summarizing of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel).
In 1972, he was recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department and eventually roses from the records room to working as an undercover attendant of Black Power figurehead Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)’s local speech to initiating his own investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan just by lifting up his office phone, calling local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and proclaiming his hate of all non-Aryan races in the earshot of everyone in his office, including fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Flip meets on Ron’s behalf face-to-face with the chapter, including the intense paranoiac Felix (Jasper Pääkönen), while Jimmy is recording the encounters and Ron continues to correspond with the Klan over the phone, eventually reaching National Director Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a brittle-yet-prim Topher Grace in his non-Ocean’s-movie career-best).
Most of this material is presented in the cleanest manner and I mean completely clean, like two steps away from Wikipedia summary if not for the liberties the screenplay takes with the story. Not just how matter-of-fact Lee’s direction of moments like Ron’s beginnings in the records room or his mingling with local black student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), but how absolutely unwilling it is to delve into the complications of the matter. Flip says some vile things to Ron while undercover, some of them to his own face, and there’s never a doubt on the film’s mind that Flip’s aggression is all a game. Despite the Chief of Police claiming in one scene that Ture is a threat to the peace, Stallworth insists in one scene that he is not and the Chief accepts that he is not. The police force depicted here are all unconflicted good guys except for one character by Frederick Weller who exists solely to be booed and jeered as the “bad apple” in the force. In general, despite Patrice’s only major contribution being somebody Ron has to protect and occasionally explaining how racism is institutionalized, the film refuses to confront Ron’s desire to battle the system while being unfortunately a part of that system as it arranges for its depiction of the system to be altruistic. The only disorganization comes from the buffoonish and dumb hicks that are the resident KKK, an approach that feels like the sort of white liberal reassuring I would not have expected from Lee.
I don’t want to lay this on the feet of the white co-writers necessarily. I know that Flip’s Jewish identity was an invention of theirs and a mid-film monologue regarding his feeling of assimilation among white people is one of the few times Flip gets to register as a complex character with his own arc, though it is unfortunate that the entire arc gets contained to one scene. Mostly, it just feels like the main priority was just putting together the episodic investigation with only a few avenues for it to truly become a Spike Lee joint, which it does the more and more it leads to its own finale after a wandering middle where the pieces shuffle inch by inch. That it doesn’t seem interested in talking about racism ingrained in the police force is unfortunate, but I’m gonna assume the man who made Do the Right Thing knows all about that anyway.
Anyway, the “Spike Lee joint” material pops in every now and again after that Alec Baldwin rant (which mind you has terrific editing to imply how flustered and foolish even the most “learned” person can be when all of his mistakes are public). Enough to outweigh the bland stuff, if not in quantity then in quality. Ture’s speech is superimposed by beautiful black faces in chiaroscuro lighting as he verbally tears down perceptions of ugliness towards black people, making us see exactly what inspiration Ture sees in his fellow peers. The most powerful cue of Blanchard’s theme appears at a cold reveal involving a Klan shooting range, defiant and sad at once. Most impressively, Harry Belafonte delivers an account of the horrifying Jesse Washington lynching in 1916 in gruesome detail accompanied by photos while cross-cut with the Klan watching the infamous Birth of a Nation and celebrating the Gus lynching scene, defiantly condemning one of the foundational motion pictures in cinematic history and its acclaim and legacy.
And yet it only feels like bits and pieces have that fiery soul to them rather than the whole movie and even while it ends on its most impassioned moment, involving a direct wake-up call to remind us that a few prank phone calls and averted cross-burnings did not stop racism and violence from remaining in the US, it’s of a ballsy unwieldy move involving archive footage and a static final shot that feels dynamic in its message that some might call the messy side of Spike Lee. Personally, I wish the entire film was that kind of ballsy messiness (after all, I don’t doubt we’d still have moments I loved most with that don’t give a fuck attitude). It’s the most galvanizing moment the entire movie has contextualizing the story with the current atmosphere and it’s impossible to ignore the message from that moment, misfire or not. Maybe Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting both spoiled me, and I can’t pretend a movie led by this kind of performance from Washington (who has clearly inherited his father’s confidence) is boring, but I was not expecting the filmmaker who had been fighting these battles before Boots Riley or Daveed Diggs had to be pulling some of his punches.
*Matter of fact, now that I have that down, I’m thinking BlacKkKlansman would make a worthwhile double feature with Inglourious Basterds, which has similar observations and practices towards cinema. Ironic given the notorious feud between Lee and Quentin Tarantino.