Dissecting 'BlacKkKlansman' and Its Startling Conclusion
Spike Lee uses real-life detective Ron Stallworth's story as a cracked mirror to examine Trump's America in 2018.
[This story contains spoilers for BlacKkKlansman.]
The following is part of a monthly conversation series between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. This month, they tackled BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee's fictionalized account of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth's investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film, Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrates the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Caucasian Jewish-American police officer, and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist that Stallworth meets while attending a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture lecture. There are spoilers ahead.
Simon Abrams, Getting Off the Bus: BlacKkKlansman has been praised as one of co-writer/director Spike Lee's best films. It received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been hailed by friends and colleagues as his best in years. Our friend Odie Henderson, over at RogerEbert.com, gave the film four stars and said that it is "not only one of the year’s best films but one of Lee’s best as well." Rembert Browne, writing for Time Magazine, echoes that sentiment by saying that BlacKkKlansman is "Lee’s most critically heralded and accessible effort in over a decade." Search your review aggregator of choice — Twitter, for me — and you'll soon see that some variation of this sentiments is fairly popular.
BlacKkKlansman feels like, among other things, Lee's way of rejecting institutionally revered, but fundamentally (and apparently) racist American movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. He pointedly opens his film with footage from the latter movie, and quotes the former pic soon in two key scenes, one of which is a comically delivered but deadly serious address from Alec Baldwin as a sock puppet white supremacist named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard. Documentary footage washes over Baldwin's face as he speaks and erases his skin color; he is, in other words, white enough to become part of the screen. It's a visually powerful shot across the bow, one that speaks to Lee's skill as both a social commentator and an image-maker.
BlacKkKlansman is also a welcome clapback to several earlier films that depicted the Klan as a social ill that can either be contained or wished away thanks to the actions of a handful of white Everyman-style American citizens. Roger Corman's The Intruder (1962) is probably the best of these, but even its too-neat finale feels inadequate to the task of addressing the deep roots of racism in the Klan and leader David Duke's modern legacy. We need counter-narratives like BlacKkKlansman because there have been so many other ineffective and exploitative films made by white filmmakers before it, like the muddled and ultra-cynical The Klansman (1974), which ends on a ridiculously inconclusive note (possibly due to a famously troubled production). Or the gross and juvenile The Black Klansman (1966), which begins with a young black girl being burned to death on the steps of a black church and continues with an unfortunate scene of a light-skinned African-American choking out a white woman while screaming, "White! White! White! White! White!" Compared to these films, BlacKkKlansman feels like a vital corrective.
That said, I have mixed feelings about the film, as you and I discussed once our screening ended. My reservations mostly have to do with Lee and his co-writers' fuzzy articulation of a theme that Henderson eloquently gave voice to in his review, namely how Adam Driver's character Flip Zimmerman suggests (in one scene, through a Sam Fuller-worthy bit of declamatory dialogue) that like Ron Stallworth, he — a secular Jewish-American — must also pass among WASPy Caucasians. In that sense, my hesitations about Zimmerman have a lot to do with how I see BlacKkKlansman as the work of both Spike Lee the showman and Spike Lee the social commentator (I'd say "provocateur," but that's a loaded term, especially when applied to a black filmmaker). So, to start: How well does this film work as a fictional representation of history that's a political statement, a feel-good entertainment and an effective piece of agitprop?
Steven Boone, Outside Man: "How well does this film work as a fictional representation of history that's a political statement, a feel-good entertainment and an effective piece of agitprop?"
BlacKkKlansman works on all those fronts quite well, but at about the same bellowing, rabble-rousing level as the two racist classics it attacks, Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation. This is Lee's Django Unchained, an essay/political cartoon/pastiche that's out to turn the tables, settle the scores, revisit the horrors and tear the scabs. I was able to enjoy it as such without much believing in a single character strutting through it. The real lead character here is The Mind of Spike Lee, the stream of pop imagery, wisecracks and Black Studies bullet points that excite him.
If the flannel-on-leather visual texture of this film (an homage to the work of grit-and-shadow '70's cinematographers like Owen Roizman and Gordon Willis) prompts an expectation that it will be a lean and focused procedural, you might be disoriented by its succession of broad, blunt gags. Lee and his writers have so much fun setting up the cop and Klan jokes that they often go no further than the setup and linger on it like a resounding punchline. A lot of exposition and character is established verbally, with what we hear immediately reflected or contradicted by what we see. For all its '70's influences, Blackkklansman is undeniably a 2018 film, putting its jokes across like a meme retweeted with laughing-through-tears emojis in case you missed it.
I found it exhausting and exasperating when I went looking for realistic situations in the police stationhouse, the black power meetings and the Klan backrooms; exhilarating when I relaxed and took the movie in not as drama or even comedy but as a rollicking essay film. As such, it's right up there with Lee's Jim Brown: All-American (2002), which, with the help of commentators like Donald Bogle and savagely funny editing, turned what could have been a routine HBO sports bio-doc into a world of ideas about race, sex, sports and Hollywood. Here Barry Alexander Brown, the post-production supervisor of Jim Brown and editor of several Lee classics, plays with split-screens, repetitive edits, film clips, archival photos, posters and pointed cross-cutting to float ideas about cinema's genocidal and revolutionary potential. If that sounds like PBS, you might be unfamiliar with how Lee manages to write history with greased lightning.
On a dime, he can fashion concepts that were moments before playing for cheap, glib laughs into devastating statements. Kwame Ture's speech at the Black Student Union hall becomes a study of the faces in the crowd, gazing up in rage, inspiration and sorrow under a pearly toplight that resembles countless Black Is Beautiful '70's advertising photos. Ture is telling them only what they already know, that they have been under spiritual assault all their lives, pressed to believe that they are ugly and inferior. This sequence pushes beyond similarly lit and framed black faces in the opening of Lionel Rogosin's Black Roots (1970) from a bluesy plea to a defiance worthy of Baldwin (James, not Alec).
So, as in many Spike Lee joints, Blackkklansman can convey the sense of playing a serious subject and potentially rich characters cheap, only to stun us in the next breath with something true. I wonder if anything in the filmmakers' handling of Driver's character, the secular Jew passing as WASP for his undercover assignment, gave you a pleasant surprise. What aspects of the film's "passing" theme gave you trouble?
Abrams: I think your distinction between Spike Lee the essayist/polemicist and Spike Lee the entertainer is really important to this discussion. Like you, I think the film's ideas — which are writ large in the finale, which I'd like to discuss in our concluding salvos — are potent because Lee has an indelible eye for symbolic truth. But — and please pardon my paraphrasing Lionel Hutz — there's the truth (narrative) and the Truth (symbolic). BlackKklansman seems most solid to me when it is most clearly the product of Lee, the exceptionally sensitive image-maker. I completely agree about the rapturous effect of the Kwame Ture speaking engagement: The way Lee films the audience's reaction in a tableaux vivant-style photo-collage is amazing. I also love the bookend images of water draining beneath an overpass during Stallworth's secret meeting with an unnamed FBI agent (Danny Hoch). And most scenes with Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), the vociferously bigoted wife of Klansman Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), who is also presumably trying to pass whenever she insinuates herself into Felix's Klan-related plans.
Connie's scenes stand out to me for the same reason that I was drawn to most scenes that revolve around Zimmerman or Dumas: Here's Lee treating his supporting characters as humanoid mirrors for Stallworth's own struggles with passing. It's a struggle that has a superficially disturbing, but essentially un-introspective (extrospective?) conclusion. But that's only when you look at Stallworth — and, by extension, his fellow protagonists — as a sympathetic symbol first, and a character with an arc after that.
Which is where I start to have problems with Zimmerman's character. He's based on a person who, in real life, we do not know much about since "Chuck," Stallworth's real-life partner in this operation, has never been publicly identified. Similarly, Dumas does not exist in real life: She is a composite of several historical figures, including black activist Angela Davis. Still, we are in the realm of loaded symbols, so it's not surprising that Lee has said that he chose to make Zimmerman Jewish so that he would, as Stallworth says, have "some skin in the game." That logic doesn't sit well with me given the provocative nature of the scenes where Felix tests Zimmerman's allegiances, like their discomfiting talk about the Holocaust (in which Felix denies the Holocaust occurred and Zimmerman avoids suspicion by praising the Final Solution). Or the way that Baldwin repeatedly mentions (in character during his prefatory rant) and inexpertly parrots anti-Semitic talking points from the great Zionist global banking conspiracy.
We know very little about Zimmerman before the film's punishingly (but effectively) abrupt conclusion — which recasts him in a disturbing new light — beyond the fact that he was not raised Jewish, and therefore did not realize the extent that he was passing among his fellow white cops until he became involved in Stallworth's case. In the scene where Zimmerman says this — and rejects the Klan membership card that Stallworth hands him — he's presented as a potential partner for Stallworth, somebody that Washington's protagonist might be able to effect real change with. That misperception is violently upended later, and while I understand and appreciate that conclusion, Lee's presentation of Zimmerman still doesn't sit well with me.
I'm already over word count, but before we talk about the finale, I want to ask you if you think maybe the way we read BlacKkKlansman as a narrative/character-grounded drama first and then an essay...is that just a matter of our expecting one thing and getting another? I tend to think it's also a shortcoming of the film, but I'm not so sure.
Boone: In the two days since we saw BlacKkKlansman, I've wrestled with the question: Am I unfairly measuring this film against my expectations, at the expense of seeing it for what it is? Well, I'm done wrestling, and for this round, at least, have the answer pinned: No! As the saying goes, I see what Lee did there. I get how he felt the need to fabricate a third act race-to-the-rescue suspense sequence from a sitcom-grade comedy of errors. I see how he used the fictitious Zimmerman character to remind us that the Klan's other great obsessive love (after lynching and cross-burning) is paranoid anti-Semitism. And as MASH's Korean War setting was a front for Vietnam War-era observations, it's clear that BlacKkKlansman is more interested in Stallworth's story as a cracked mirror for MAGA/BLM America '18 than as...Stallworth's story.
Fine. It's just that these conceptual stratagems yield the most obvious, Facebook-algorithm insights and require constant embellishment to retain dramatic interest, where simply digging into the visceral reality of the situation, as reported by Stallworth himself, would have done just fine. Ecstatic truths are arrived at, not just declaimed. The most organically suspenseful moments involve the invented character Zimmerman's undercover confrontations with his Klan recruiters. Here Lee builds and sustains the tension through credible ensemble acting. Driver anchors these scenes, conveying more vulnerability than we ever get to witness from Washington's Stallworth. One could argue that Stallworth keeps so cool because he doesn't have to physically face the Klansmen, except in one giddy scene that riffs on an actual encounter between Stallworth and Grand Wizard David Duke. But what about the reality of being the sole black cop in Colorado City, Colorado, a city and state whose agencies contain many Klansmen working at high levels? Because that was the reality in the early '70's. Part of the charm of Washington's Stallworth is that he's mastered the game of bluffing through the racist gauntlet with a cavalier Jack Johnson attitude. He's Colorado Shaft.
What's missing, mostly, is what's underneath that bluster. James Baldwin, reflecting on Sidney Poitier's sudden ability to slap a wealthy white racist without consequence in In the Heat of the Night (1967), wrote that the film's treacherous whites "can be considered moving and pathetic only if one has the luxury of the insurance that one will never be at their mercy." BlacKkKlansman gives Stallworth the same "insurance" granted Poitier's Mr. Tibbs: badge and gun. And the networked white power within the police force that could turn on him just as mercilessly as the Klan is represented by one patrolman character who is comical, not moving, but certainly pathetic. (The FBI, meanwhile, backs Stallworth up with intel on Klan connections to the military and NORAD. The same FBI that, around that time, was sending black agents into community arts groups to break them up by any means necessary, including arson.)
To compensate for this lack of tension, Lee throws in the obligatory confrontations — police harassing Kwame Ture and his black student hosts; a climactic scene where Stallworth, saving the day, nearly gets murdered by unaware beat cops; and Harry Belafonte lending gravitas in a grisly illustrated monologue about a lynching his character witnessed — at full pitch. Woke jump scares. So we veer from blithe blaxploitation-flavored fantasy to the heart of darkness on a dime, and not nearly as gracefully or propulsively as the filmmakers seem to think. Until that lacerating finale. Oh, man, that finale.
Abrams: The finale is simultaneously the best and worst thing about BlacKkKlansman. Here, we see the two bodies/one mind reconciliation that Stallworth has been presumably looking for since the start of the film. He thought he found it in Zimmerman, but oops, there's that final shot of a burning cross, and a Klansman who, underneath his hood, looks like Zimmerman. That's an exquisitely damning image, the burning cross burned into the retina of his eye. It's beautiful and terrifying. It also sets up a shaky way forward for contemporary viewers: a unified black militancy/activism, one perfectly visualized using Lee's signature People Mover shot.
But there's that "presumably" again. I don't think Lee or his credited co-writers — two of whom are Jewish-Americans — are anti-Semitic, but I do think their use of Zimmerman's Jewish-ness is insensitive. The loaded images and the political message that Lee and his collaborators employ need narrative-supported and character-driven force to be effectively provocative talking points. Because otherwise, the use of a Jewish slur, the Holocaust denials, the Zionist conspiracy talking points and even the succeeding documentary footage of "white nationalists" chanting "Jews will not replace us" — all of them feel like empty button-pushing.
Which is a shame, since Lee's Pass Over makes some of the same points as BlacKkKlansman, but in more effective ways: White privilege means that white ally-ship is inconstant and cannot be relied on. Because my "skin in the game" is negligible and therefore unreliable. Granted, Lee also pointedly (and believably) concludes with documentary footage of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer's murder, as well as a touching dedication to her. And, as in the above-mentioned Browne interview, Lee confirms that he thinks Heyer was a real hero. So it's obviously not impossible to be white and heroic.
But why does Flip Zimmerman — even his name hints at his treacherously inconstant character, though I hasten to add that real-life George Zimmerman (no relation!) is Catholic — have a change of heart if not to further establish the notion that black activism is the most righteous path forward? I don't believe this conceit here like I do in other recent Lee efforts — recently, Pass Over and the great Chi-Raq — because it's established with a very vague notion about the dangerous effect of D.W. Griffith-style propaganda on white viewers, a notion that's briefly illustrated later in the film. Where is Zimmerman in this scene, where the Klan hoots and hollers as they watch Birth of a Nation? He's easily picked out during his initiation, especially since Stallworth is literally watching him from a high window. These images, in tandem, make Zimmerman seem like a scapegoat. Why not blame the other WASPy cops who turned a blind eye to racism? Why Zimmerman, except because he's the best developed character? And why those anti-Semitic slurs and conspiracy theories, except ostensibly to foster some canned melodramatic tension?
Is Zimmerman supposed to be similar to the Republican voters who ask us to stop lumping them in with the alt-right and Neo-Nazis? And if so, how can I know that without his character being developed further? If Zimmerman, like Dumas and Connie, is a rhetorical device in the form of a supporting character, why does he only sometimes show signs of having an inner life? If he's more important as a icon than a protagonist, then why wouldn't you build him up more as a fictional character, so that his symbolic meaning isn't just based on projection?
I don't know. What does the documentary footage that Lee uses — as well as the dual impulse to give us feel-good moments like the finale phone call to Duke and that gorgeous People Mover shot — mean? Did you find this movie to be more optimistic or pessimistic? Better yet, did these final moments work for you?
Boone: If the film is going to address Zimmerman's ambivalence and relative privilege, best to do it in some kind of real-world context, some vivid incident that puts us in his shoes. The scenes of his recruitment and trials do just that, but Zimmerman's later failure to challenge Stallworth's assessment of his white-skinned privilege (bangs gavel, case closed) is a very 2018, trigger-avoidant move. All privilege is relative, situational and arises from a world of variables operating in real time. Since Zimmerman is a fictional character filling in the unknown blanks of an actual cop who stood in for Stallworth, there was an opportunity to explore both what "privilege" of intellect and emotional intelligence (as opposed to mere flippant cracker-baiting) Stallworth had on the ball, along with what soul bruises Zimmerman might have been suffering, caught between two groups with entrenched assumptions about his "skin in the game," or lack thereof. Movies get cheap when they go no further into character than a social media post.
But then that ending! I miss Bill Nunn, and clearly Lee misses him, too: he posts a lot of Radio Raheem tributes on social media and has been promoting BlacKkKlansman wearing Nunn/Raheem's LOVE/HATE brass knuckles. That gesture, and the way Raheem remodeled a great American film moment (Robert Mitchum's "Left Hand/Right Hand" monologue in Night of the Hunter) into a diagnosis of America's enduring predicament, amount to the Best of Spike Lee on Race. The message is as simple as anything Rodney King or Kanye West might stammer nervously under the flash bulbs. There's a lot to lose by asserting it, as the hashtag tribalism currently in force urges us to pick one of many sides or be judged weak of mind or spine. For all the complexity films like BlacKkKlansman claim to explore (and then suffer probing complexity audits like ours here), the emotional take-away is blood simple. How to put it? Well, around the time of BlacKkKlansman's story, when Lee was a kid, Curtis Mayfield uttered a line in the song "We Got to Have Peace" that stops the world: "It could be such a sweet romance." He's singing about all the missed opportunities for connection between Americans, over silly little notions like race, age, class, gender.
The terrible underside of that line is the reality we live in, which is where BlacKkKlansman ends. Terence Blanchard's score wails with Mayfield-like lament over footage of violence at the Charlottesville protests. The final image singles out a person, not a movement, a system or an ethnic group. There is so much love and tenderness in that passage that I am fine with the often lazily imagined, self-satisfied 120-plus minutes leading up to it. Spike Lee is an evergreen, eternally precocious young filmmaker, always creating with the spirit, energy and recklessness of a first-timer. His jocular cynicism is a bore, but when he singles out individuals for their disarming quirks or contradictions or even, as in the case of this ending, the simple value of their life, we see what I like to think is an emotionally cagey filmmaker revealing his skin in the game. That's touching.