David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth and Laura Harrier as Patrice in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmanPhoto courtesy David Lee / Focus Features

Afterbirth of a Nation

A black cop infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s powerful new film BlacKkKlansman

The call-out controversy arising between Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, and director Spike Lee — whose new film, BlacKkKlansman, Riley accuses of a kind of essential inauthenticity — is illuminating, and a perfect inroad to discussing Lee’s latest cinematic gut-punch.

Riley, ever the good Marxist, claims in a Twitter essay that Lee’s film about a black cop infiltrating the KKK, based on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, is “a made-up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.”

Strong stuff, recalling the recent confrontation between Cornell West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom West referred to as “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle” — in short, a sell-out whose identity politics blind him to the deeper roots of racism. Strong stuff.

The older I get, the more I agree with critics like West and Riley (and Marx) — that the capitalist realities of class and economic oppression are the real, albeit complicated, roots of racism — but such ideological distinctions become dangerous when assessing a particular work of art. Next thing you know, you’re throwing intellectuals out of helicopters.

Because here’s the deal: BlacKkKlansman knocked the living shit out of me. By the time the final credits rolled, I had to rush out of the theater, fearing that my welling tears were heading toward the kind of barking grief that never ends. Such is the world these days.

From the opening scene of BlacKkKlansman, we know we’re in Lee territory, as the camera pans and pulls back on the famous post-battle scene in Gone With the Wind, ending on a shot of a torn Confederate flag blowing in the breeze, then cuts immediately to Alec Baldwin in black-and-white mock-propaganda footage, providing “scientific evidence” of white racial superiority.

Such is a Spike Lee joint: a pastiche of powerful, didactic images and surreal (or hyper-real) interludes and blunt history lessons that acts like a hard tap on the shoulder, all of it weaving through the main narrative which, carved down to its skeletal truth, is usually a straight-up potboiler.

The narrative, in this instance, is an orthodox crime thriller, with a big twist: In 1979, Ron Stallworth (the excellent John David Washington) is hired as the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force. Almost immediately, Stallworth is sent to observe (see: infiltrate, in street clothes) a black power speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the Black Student Union. Romantic complications ensue.

Moved quickly to the intelligence division, Stallworth, almost as an afterthought, dials up local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and ingratiates himself (using his best white voice which, chillingly, was also a racial device in Riley’s film) with president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Stallworth’s Jewish colleague Flip (Adam Driver, also great) gets sent undercover as his white doppelgänger, where he makes contact with the infamous David Duke (Topher Grace, hilariously milquetoast), the organization’s Grand Wizard.


Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKLansman

Photo courtesy David Lee / Focus Features

The suspense of this tense and tangled-up story hinges, ultimately, on a plot by the KKK to bomb a civil rights rally — one of the “false parts” Riley has called out as a pure fabrication meant to lionize the efforts of the police (read: the oppressor). Perhaps. Everybody’s got an axe to grind, and the question here might be: What is the nature, and sharpness, and effectiveness, of Lee’s axe? That’s the rub.

Spike Lee — didactic, outrageous, seductive and confrontational — is a master filmmaker. His best films maintain an exquisite balance between pure, propulsive entertainment and aggressive digression, creating a kind of hypnotic push-and-pull that can feel, at times, like outright manipulation. Lee’s movies have an unmistakable feel that is at once all-too-real and fantastically symbolic, like a dream. His main meter is a sort of gallows humor that traffics in equal parts outrage and disbelief.

In BlacKkKlansman, Lee is after the big stuff — namely, the endless civil war roiling at the core of our society, more than ever ready to boil over — and to that end he pulls out all the stops: scathing satire, documentary footage, speechifying, genre elements, comedy, tragedy. He holds a mirror up to society, reflecting us back to ourselves.

In this regard, Riley’s criticisms are apt, because Lee is not a revolutionary; he’s more reflective and recuperative, just an exhausted, disgusted, world-weary guy who knows that, in the end, throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria isn’t going to change a fucking thing.

Whereas Riley, in Sorry to Bother You, takes aim at the system, Lee, in his latest film, takes aim at the individual, who is subject to the system but not always beholden to it. Both are right. ■

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