On stage at BFi London for a Q&A after a preview screening of BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee shrugs off questions about D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The 1915 film is an overtly racist Civil War epic that portrays black people as spectacle and white people as heroes. When it was originally screened, the film was directly responsible for a massive spike in violence against black people in cities across the United States. It is also contentiously renowned amongst film students and heralded in universities as a masterpiece of cinematic innovation.
Audience members want to know how Lee feels about using Griffith’s work in BlacKkKlansman. They want to know whether the should be watching the “classics” that have since become notorious for all the wrong reasons. This is a tired debate, and one Lee justifiably refuses to engage with. In a post-Charlottesville America, he is less interested in hashing and rehashing questions of whether we should retire old films – or problematic directors – into oblivion. Instead, he lets his work do the talking.
BlacKkKlansman opens with the famous crane scene from Gone With the Wind followed by an alternatingly cringe-inducing and laugh-worthy cameo from Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist filming a piece of propaganda. With this, Lee quickly sets the tone of the film; scenes bounce deftly between Old Hollywood cinema, blaxploitation film, propaganda and documentary.
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, the first and only black man on the Colorado Springs police force who works his way onto the undercover squad. Working with Adam Driver’s straightforward, Jewish cop Flip and the rest of the team, Stallworth first launches investigations into the Black Panther movement. Washington delivers a dynamite performance – one that’s brought out in full force against Laura Harrier’s Patrice. Part love-interest, part subject of investigation, the head of the black student union consistently questions Stallworth’s motives as a black man.
The investigations continue as normal until Stallworth calls a number in a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan. Using his real name, Ron Stallworth requests a meeting in-person with the Klansmen. Maintaining the ruse, Flip plays the Ron who attends meetings and deals with the ruthlessly racist Klansmen, while Stallworth engages Klan Grand Wizard David Duke over the phone. When asked if he can pass as white to (Topher Grace’s deeply unsettling) Duke, Stallworth tells one doubtful sargeant he’s good at “speaking jive and the King’s English” (read: code-switching). Meanwhile, Flip finds it difficult to conceal his Jewish heritage in the face of Holocaust deniers, having to throw out horrific slurs and praise the Nazis to pass for white.
Some characters are based more closely on their real life equivalents than others (the real-life Flip, for instance, is not actually Jewish), but every performance feels necessary to the fabric of the film. This is a fleshed out piece, with flashy dialogue and snappy cuts from scene to scene. The Klansmen flip between buffoonery and malice. Lee carefully balances their world, with its humourous idiocy and bold-faced racism (à la Donald Trump, a parallel he makes many times) against Patrice’s world, where we hear devastating true stories of violent lynch mobs.
Lee plays with balance much like Stallworth does within the narrative: through code-switching. If you think of cinema as a language, Lee can be seen to use both Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to communicate with the audience. He converses both with documentary and found footage from real events. Alongside blaxsploitation tropes, Lee creates a dialogue with popular undercover cop tropes. He is speaking directly to the viewer, and often directly to white viewers. Using these familiar cinematic scenes and tropes – ones that were previously and problematically reserved for white people – he is infiltrating whiteness from the inside.
That said, Lee has been criticised for his seeming optimism for the police and the power of change (most notably by Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley). Such an attitude may have come a little too late for an America steeped in traditions of gunmanship and racism, and seemingly boiling over with tension between police and populace. It’s not that Lee is ignorant of these tensions, of course. In one scene, Patrice tells Stallworth he can’t change the system from within and he’s too optimistic; Lee seems to see himself in Stallworth. He’s aware he may be seen as too soft, but he believes in his mission.
The film ends with a bold address and Lee finishes his Q&A with a pull back to reality. His hope for BlacKkKlansman, he tells the audience, is to keep people angry with the current administration. To get them thinking. Mainly, he says, his hope is to mobilise people to vote.
Lee’s optimism is contagious. For all its softness – its kind treatment of police and simplification of racism – the film does leave you with the desire to take action. It’s well-balanced, deeply self-referential, and (quite simply) a lot of fun to watch. I can’t recommend it enough.