Rolling in the Deep
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Focus Features
Sometime in the latter part of Spike Lee’s 1970-something set BlacKkKlansman, campus activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) and her suitor Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) take a bucolic stroll together on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, discussing their preferred black exploitation movies and her favorite subject, black liberation. She is a committed revolutionist, fired by the ideals of Kwame Ture (played in the film by Corey Hawkins), while he argues that the system can and must be changed from within. Patrice, unconvinced, slaps him with a reference to W.E.B. DuBois’s 1903 The Souls of Black Folk and to DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness,” a conflict—irreconcilable, to her mind—between identifying and holding the loyalties of a person of African heritage and as a citizen of a United States that holds the black American as second-class.
The irony, clear to a viewer and presumably to Ron, is that his consciousness is far more divided than Patrice can imagine, because unbeknownst to her he is the first black member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, and when they met cute at a Ture speech sponsored by the Colorado College Black Student Union, he was operating undercover, monitoring the potential for violence within the black activist community. Making his subterfuge even more complicated—and his consciousness still more fractured—is the fact that Ron is currently at work infiltrating the local chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron handles the phone contacts, first with regional leader Walter (Ryan Eggold), then with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), while the in-person appearances are handled by a white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who has to conceal his own Jewish ancestry from the suspicious peckerwoods.
In the figures of Patrice and Ron, the revolutionist and the by-the-book traditionalist, Lee returns effectively to the counterposed quotations by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that conclude his Do the Right Thing, and a quandary that has preoccupied much of his career. And here, again, this internal conflict between politically turned-on members of the black community takes place against the context of a larger, external threat posed by a group claiming to represent a white ethnic group drawn together by an embattled, preservation-minded identity. In Do the Right Thing it’s an urban Italian enclave, here WASP manhood as a whole; in both cases, they’re backed up by an ostensibly color-blind law enforcement mechanism that in practice frequently seems to operate under the assumption that white-makes-right.
That white supremacy, never an entirely unfashionable proposition in America as indeed in the western world, has been enjoying a period of renewed public legitimacy is a fact that BlacKkKlansman addresses quite overtly. The broad-hipped, iguana-throated shadow of Lee’s fellow outer-borough Baby Boomer New Yorker Donald J. Trump hangs heavy over BlacKkKlansman, from a CSPD officer’s comments to naïve Ron about the danger of a mainstream white supremacist candidate taking office to a coda that takes us to the lofted tiki torches and pleated khakis of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, plus archival appearances from a sixtysomething Duke and the 45th President, delivering his much-parsed “very fine people on both sides” remark.
The sides in question here are the nascent black power and entrenched white power movements, juxtaposed throughout BlacKkKlansman. This comes to a head in the film’s climax, which cuts between an event at the Colorado College Black Student Union and a Klan initiation ceremony held in country club comfort. The Student Union is hosting an elderly eyewitness to the 1916 castration and burning alive of African-American teenager Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, recounted with terrible authority by a nonagenarian Harry Belafonte. He cites the role played by the then-recent blockbuster success of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) in inspiring and egging on the cruelty of the crowd, and as he does we see the 1970s-vintage Klansmen in thrall to a 16mm screening of Griffith’s film, with its famous ride to the rescue—knowingly echoed in Ron’s own down-to-the-wire race to save Patrice from an act of white-bread domestic terrorism.
Belafonte’s testimony to the effect of Birth of a Nation on that Waco crowd amounts to a queasy affirmation of the propagandistic power of cinema and, after a fashion, a statement on the necessity of the weight of counter-myth provided by a film like BlacKkKlansman, repudiating the white-supremacism peddled explicitly by Griffith, and implicitly by so much American cinema in the interceding years. BlacKkKlansman is a punchy, pamphleteering work, delivered in the trappings of a popular genre movie: namely, a deep-cover detective film. As propaganda, it delivers a clear and concise condemnation. Its rhetorical force, however, diminishes its effectiveness as genre. The undercover or double-agent movie relies on the threat of lost or subsumed identity, a commitment to a role that threatens to block the actor from a return to the real self—they run the risk of their mask hardening to become their face. This doesn’t happen with Stallworth, as his race prevents any possibility of his developing interpersonal relationships with members of the group that he plans to infiltrate, the exception being his phone pal relationship with Duke, played for laughs at the expense of the chipper, clueless Klan capo.
Inasmuch as Ron experiences temptation that might compromise the execution of his duties as an officer of the law, this temptation comes from the possibilities of black liberation as held forth by Ture and, especially, the very attractive Patrice. The scene of Ture's spellbinding appearance, overlaid onto images of listeners with heads raised in renewed or newly discovered pride, is one moment in which the movie transmits something about the power of oratory to confer a sense of self onto an audience; the hinted-at connection between politics and sex is an intriguing one, but as Washington and Harrier’s courtship is chaste, their banter clunky, and their screen chemistry next to nil, it never gets a proper airing out. For purposes of narrative symmetry, it would make sense that the character of the white partner handling the actual hands-on meeting would be at risk of going in too deep, in the process providing a figure who could provide a vantage from which to see the Klan from the inside, as they see themselves—bastions of light in a fallen nation; good citizens, sons, fathers, and husbands; victims of an international political conspiracy to strip them of their native Anglo-Saxon Christian birthright—but Zimmerman is deliberately kept separate from his “brothers” by virtue of his Jewishness. One scene between the most cartoonishly deplorable of the Klansmen, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), and his cow-eyed, pushover wife (Ashlie Atkinson), is unusual for offering a glimpse of intimacy beyond the purview of the investigation, but in it there’s nothing beyond ominous exposition.
This scene presumably doesn’t appear in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, BlacKkKlansman, a work carrying a compelling premise, and one that would seem a godsend for a filmmaker who’s been on the worst creative run of his fiction filmmaking career from Oldboy (2013) to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) to Chi-Raq (2015). I have not read Stallworth’s book, though either the screenplay, by Lee and three credited co-writers including repeat collaborator Kevin Willmott, takes some significant liberties with the source material, or the Colorado Springs PD were the stupidest and most reckless bunch of cops in recorded history—no small distinction—sending a very potentially compromised undercover officer into the line of fire. I trust that any alterations were done because they made movie sense, if not historical sense—all well within the realm of artistic license. In fact, a film less concerned with the facts might have gotten at something real.
As it is, this undercover operation fails to penetrate beneath the Klan robes, perhaps by necessity. For a black man to commit to the rhetoric of white supremacy would be to tempt madness—think of the black actor Hari Rhodes donning a Klan hood in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), described as a black student who, in integrating a segregated Southern university, was driven insane by the abuse that he received, eventually internalizing the race hate of his persecutors. Like Fuller, Lee’s great virtue as a filmmaker is his indifference to the dictates of good taste, his “extra-ness,” which has made for the high points of his career, like the antic, scabrous Bamboozled (2000), and at least insured that even his most misbegotten works were never without a few moments of piquancy. (The audible gasps at the talking dog in 1999’s Summer of Sam have never left me.) But BlacKkKlansman takes pains to establish itself as a movie of the moment—so much so that it only seems situated in the 1970s in the most superficial aspects, like costume and soundtrack cues. For the mood of the moment, polarized and justly panicked as it is, disdains the “normalizing” and “humanizing” of politically beyond-the-pale personages as being sops to the kind of “very fine people on both sides” sentiments being expressed by the chief executive, and it is very difficult to make a compelling movie about penetrating the inner sanctum of the Ku Klux Klan when you’re loathe to admit anything potentially compelling about the Klan itself.
To disdain the Klan and its membership is morally correct, but when as an artist Lee commits himself to making a film which relies heavily on scenes of developing trust and intimacy with Klan members, failing to go deeper than this disdain limits his movie as an exposé. It’s not that Lee needs to make his racists endearing or “complex”—this is the impulse that gave us the atrocious scenes of Matt Dillon caring for his sick pop in Crash (2005), after all, and life is full of simple characters—but given the movie he’s set out to make, it would have been edifying to learn what they’re on about beyond received wisdom on wearing bedsheets and burning crosses. Duke, introduced as the well-spoken, camera-ready face of the Klan, seems intended as a Richard Spencer-like figure, but the nature of the new focus on optics or programmatic pivot that his ascendance represents is explicated no further. It is one of the curious facts of this age of extremist creeds that many seemingly disparate groups are united by the bandying about of language that touches on anti-capitalist and anti-globalist discontent, a development that is by no means new. In the racist right Internet of Stormfront and The Daily Stormer, as well as outwardly less virulent forums, one can find circulating recorded speeches of British Union of Fascism leader Sir Oswald Mosley rallying against globalization in terms that, with the tweaking of some key phrases, might pass muster as progressive. A movie that holds up the Klan for goons and goobers is a way to blow off steam, perhaps, but a movie that considered the existence of common complaints in otherwise historically and ethically different ideologies of racial solidarity might have been something hard to shake.
As it is, the Klan serve here as sources of bland, stock bad-guy menace or, in the case of Grace’s natty pipsqueak Duke and Paul Walter Hauser’s sozzled redneck “Ivanhoe,” labored comedy. Here there might be a point to be made about the power of laughter to reduce the stature of ideological enemies, but the laughter here is less purgative or near to the deranged cackle of Bamboozled, than self-satisfied. Stallworth, on the phone with a breezy and unguarded Duke, repeatedly has to stifle his own mirth and that of his co-workers in response to the blithe, racist idiocy that flows undammed from the Klan leader’s gob, and this sense of being on the right side of an inside joke runs through the movie—to its ultimate diminishment.
The basic material of BlacKkKlansman is custom-made to be described as “provocative,” even though it’s hard to pick out a moment in the finished film that would possibly provoke or discomfit someone already inclined to buy a ticket to a Spike Lee movie called BlacKkKlansman. (Here again Bamboozled, a film that practically drips with scorn for audience passivity, is an instructive counterpoint.) The movie proposes itself as a howl of vigilance, but its comedy is of the lulling, audience-flattering variety, inviting knowing liberal chuckles at recognizing the helpfully highlighted parallels between Klan discourse in the film and contemporary MAGA talking points. This isn’t the confrontational act of timeline-accordioning open anachronism, à la Derek Jarman, but a politicized version of the lazy art world gags in Midnight in Paris (2011), which seek to flatter an audience for its present-day vantage—instead of inviting self-congratulatory chuckles from viewers who know Luis Buñuel was, it offers the dubious back-pat pleasure that comes from putting very thinly veiled references to Trumpian rhetoric or predictions of the Trump phenomenon in the mouths of Klansmen.
It’s not hard to situate BlacKkKlansman in the context of Lee’s filmmaking—he was a whiz at branding before that term became common parlance. It’s a Spike Lee Joint, with the signature moments that implies, including volcanic, rapid-fire eruptions of epithets and floating double-dolly shots, in which a dolly-mounted camera follows a character or characters on an attached dolly platform. In this case it’s Harrier and Washington, responding at the close of the film to an unexpected disturbance with guns drawn and at the level: the black militant and black moderate united against a common enemy. The effect, which has precedents in Josette Day’s floating progress through the Beast’s castle in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the “Rubber Biscuit” sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), is that of characters appearing suddenly weightless, detached from their environment. The Lee touches are there, yes, but missing from BlackKklansman is the temerity to touch the live wire, the feeling of dangerous imperative. He has found a remarkable subject, but only skimmed its surface.
That Lee takes little care defining the heavies is not a fatal blow to its prospects as a straightforward genre work, but that he shows only marginally more engagement with its protagonists dooms his movie as both politics and pulp. Washington, son of actor Denzel, and Driver are both affable screen presences who work up a reasonable approximation of camaraderie for the movie to eke by on, but when one compares the sketchy treatment here to the incisive exploration of the mind and soul of the black cop achieved by star Ice Cube and director Charles Burnett in The Glass Shield (1995), Lee’s film seems sketched in and hands-off. Stallworth’s code-switching between “English and jive,” as he describes it to a superior officer, comes off as a practiced, actorly effect, not something that comes with a cost. The vagueness of the character is disappointing, for in Ron’s tricky position there is an analogy to Lee’s own practice—for participating in a power structure that in practical purposes reinforces black subjugation by entering an institution like the police force with the aim of improving the lives of black people isn’t a world apart from trying to change pop cinema from the inside.