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Spike Lee’s Blakkklansman Is Sharpest When It’s About the Movies

Spike Lee can only go big. There is no subtlety or secret message that flies over your head. It’s all right there, underlined and bolded. Blakkklansman, Lee’s latest film, doesn’t pretend to be about anything but the insidious and destructive nature of white supremacy. It’s a mess of a film that, at times, trades character development or storytelling for the larger message, which can be effective one moment and maddening the next. Blakkklansman aims to attack white supremacy with so much force that it can overshadow Lee’s more delicate attempts at wrestling with smaller ways that whiteness is enforced in America. This is a movie about violent racism, but it’s also a movie about the movies, and it’s in this critique where the film is at its most salient.

Blakkklansman, adapted from the memoir of Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington), tells the story of the first black officer of the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s by cold-calling local and national chapters, posing as a white man interested in joining, eventually getting into contact with David Duke.

But Stallworth is black, meaning he can’t meet with the Klan in person. So he enlists the help of his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be his man on the ground, who gets in good with the Colorado Springs chapter. It’s a risky gambit, particularly for the threat the Klan poses to Zimmerman, who is Jewish. (Though, because this is a movie, the viewer feels certain it will inevitably pay off in the end). Lee is a student of film, and he uses that narrative comfort to focus his sights instead of using the history of movies to tell the story of white supremacy in America.

Blakkklansman opens with Gone with the Wind’s sweeping shot of Scarlett O’Hara at the Battle of Atlanta, before suddenly transitioning to a bizarre sequence featuring Alec Baldwin as a frothing-at-the-mouth racist who warns America that school integration will bring white genocide. It’s disturbing, confounding, and a little funny—a great way to describe the film at large—but also a reminder of Spike’s belief in film as a powerful indoctrination tool. Baldwin is clearly reading off of a script and talking to someone off camera. He’s not just a rambling madman, but the star of a production intended to rally the white troops. 

Lee references Gone With the Wind again later in the film during a phone call between Stallworth and David Duke. Topher Grace plays the Klan figurehead with a complicated brilliance that shows Duke for the small, witless man he is, but also with so much daffy humor that can undermine the absolute horror and danger of his rhetoric. In this phone call, Stallworth brings up Hattie McDaniel’s slave character in the Civil War epic to relate to Duke’s own childhood black housekeeper. Apart from providing Stallworth with sly conversational fodder, Lee’s reference to the movie confronts the legacy of a consensus great film that romanticizes the war for Southern secession. That romanticization continues to this day, as debates rage about whether to tear down confederate statues in various cities across America.

Another seminal film Blakkklansman takes to task: The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film depicts black people as raping, monstrous savages, and showcases the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of America. After Flip Zimmerman—posing as Ron Stallworth—is inducted into the Klan, everyone watches the movie on a projector, laughing at the black characters and cheering on the film’s Klansmen as they ride in like a calvary of knights. This sequence, as well as the Christianity-infused baptism of the Klan induction ceremony, is juxtaposed against a meeting between an older black activist and a group of sympathetic younger listeners who concentrate intently on his story of the castration and lynching of an innocent black male. The comparison Lee is making is obvious but no less potent. It’s not just that Griffith’s film continues to be praised for the technical achievement it represented when it came out—it’s the total lack of real cultural reckoning with what Birth of a Nation had to say that unnerves and frustrates Lee, as well it should.

This same exasperation is palpable earlier in the film, when Stallworth infiltrates a rally by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) at the local college. Ture goes on a diatribe about Tarzan, another popular series and film which portrayed a white man as the “king of the jungle” beating up on the “savages.” These films aren’t just referenced because they’re easy targets but because they are beloved, supposedly important stories. That distinction says something about us, whether we mean for it to or not. In a scene between Stallworth and a young activist named Patrice, the two talk about their favorite blaxploitation films, debating the best stars and which films are more detrimental to black people. It’s a typical conversation between black people about black movies, and also a helpful reminder that the blaxploitation era allowed many black people to tell the stories they wanted to tell for the first time. Some were great, a lot were bad, but they reflected a black consciousness about the country that the filmmakers actually lived in. In this sense, it makes sense why Blakkklansman pays homage to blaxploitation and positions it as the counter-narrative (problematic as it may be) to racist ideology commonplace in Hollywood.

Blakkklansman is a movie full of highs, but it also suffers from dodgy character development and a punt of an ending. It’s Spike Lee at the most subdued he’s been in years, but it still sees the auteur throwing a thousand ideas a minute on screen, some of which stick for a long time while others wash away in a second. The most fascinating are those that take the movies as their subject. Lee knows that movies are more than entertainment. They are snapshots of history and an insight to how the public views itself and the country. At the end of Blakkklansman, the achievements of Stallworth and his team are swept under the rug and Lee shows us the effects of what all that sweeping has wrought. It’s a jolt of an ending, and underlines Lee’s uncertainty regarding how to end a film about a story that that remains unfinished to this day. It’s an ending sure to inspire debate over whether it “worked,” whether it was responsible, if it properly conveyed a point. In fact, the entire movie will do that, and perhaps that is the point itself. Lee, more than anyone, knows the worth in constantly interrogating what our movies have to say.