starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, based on the book by Ron Stallworth
directed by Spike Lee
by Walter Chaw Colorado Springs is a big, modern, beautiful city. It's home to natural wonders like the Tolkien-sounding Garden of the Gods and the Cave of the Winds. Its zoo, perched on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, is world class. Spencer Penrose built a shrine to his friend Will Rogers on that same mountain when Rogers died in a plane crash. Cheyenne Mountain is also where NORAD is housed, and Colorado Springs is also host to the United States Air Force Academy and, once upon a time, Focus on the Family. It's an ultra-conservative city just south of blue Denver, which is itself south of the trust-fund hippie commune of Boulder. And for a few years starting around 1925, there was no greater stronghold for the Klan in the United States than in Denver. In 1978, Ron Stallworth became the first African-American police officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, and then the first detective when he went undercover to infiltrate a Kwame Ture speech at a black nightclub. In 1979, he answered an ad hoping to establish a chapter of the KKK in the Springs, posing over the telephone as a man who hated every non-white race, but especially "those blacks." A white counterpart attended meetings while Stallworth eventually gained the trust of then-Grand Wizard David Duke. Duke reached out to Stallworth recently because he was concerned he was going to be portrayed as a buffoon in Spike Lee's adaptation of Stallworth's memoir, BlacKkKlansman. I mean, if the hood fits... If there is one indicator of involvement with cults like this, it's deep-seated insecurity. It bears mentioning that Denver's old airport, Stapleton International Airport, is the namesake of five-time Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton, who was a high-ranking member and, until the end of his reign, vocal supporter of the Klan. The airport is gone, but the neighbourhood that replaced it still carries his name.
...a Chinaman had no rights that any man was bound to respect; that he had no sorrows that any man was bound to pity, that neither his life nor his liberty was worth the purchase of a penny when a white man needed a scapegoat; that [nobody] befriended them, nobody spared them suffering when it was convenient to inflict it; everybody, individuals, communities, the majesty of the State itself, joined in hating, abusing, and persecuting these humble strangers.
My favourite story out of this Denver riot was that a brothel led by its madam, Liz Preston, and ten prostitutes described by fireman William Roberts to the ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (now defunct as well) as "ten Amazonian beauties armed with champagne bottles, stove pokers, and high-heeled shoes," protected 34 Chinese from rioters looking for blood. One man, Sing Lee, was beaten to death in the streets, his murderers acquitted in February of the following year. The inciting factor for the riot? Democratic presidential candidate Winfield Hancock vilified the Chinese as the "bad hombres" of their day, suggesting that his opponent James Garfield was importing them illegally in order to swell the vote, take white jobs, and give venereal diseases to white children. Hancock, meanwhile, hired actual illegal voters to swell the ranks of an anti-Chinese parade in Denver. The riot started at a saloon at the intersection of Wazee and 16th St. Today that's the heart of the city's LoDo area--a block from the Tattered Cover Bookstore, a couple of blocks from Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play. There's a plaque there somewhere if you know where to look. Wong Chin Fu, a contemporary Chinese lecturer in Chicago, said that "if a single American was treated in China as were the victims of the anti-Chinese riots at Denver, the United States would send 100,000 missionaries to civilize the heathen." (DENVER DAILY TIMES, Dec. 13, 1880). If you do any sort of cursory study of this riot (and I owe everything to Roy T. Wortman's article on the subject), you would see the same language, the same dog whistles, the same bad information, conspiracy theories, nativism, religiosity, and, above all, outcomes as, say, a Charlottesville. The parties have swapped, but the massive ignorance at play remains the same.
There's a dance sequence in the first third of BlacKkKlansman. It's at a nightclub. Patrice (Laura Harrier), the love interest of Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's kid) and head of a black student union, tells a story about how she was just sexually harassed by a white cop who pulled her over with no cause but to harass. She doesn't yet know what Ron does for a living. Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose's "Too Late To Turn Back Now" comes on the juke and Ron asks Patrice if she wants to dance. Lee lets the song run from start to end. Everyone dances. Everyone sings along. It's an emotional moment and the kind of use of the musical interlude that Walter Hill does in his pictures to set the time, the place, the character of a group as it expresses itself communally. It gives room, too, to think about the Ture speech, which Lee intersperses with the floating faces of a rapt audience filled with young black intellectuals, Ron among them, awakening to themselves for maybe the first time. The example Ture uses is the old Tarzan serials and how their depictions of savages taught African-Americans to hate and fear themselves. In many ways, BlacKkKlansman is a film about film history, opening with the field hospital sequence from Gone with the Wind and a propaganda reel narrated by a frothing Alec Baldwin, hopping from there to the MGM Tarzans and a Klan-sponsored screening of Birth of a Nation that's intercut with Harry Belafonte telling the story of the Waco Horror and its likely association with the screenings of that film.
There's a lot of talk by the particularly, dangerously stupid about how film is not political. This film is a direct refutation of that. I appreciate Boots Riley chiming in on Twitter with the truth that it isn't that film chooses to be political, but that film cannot help but be political by the fact of itself. Before it was discovered that cinema was powerful, after all, women were allowed to be its creators. There's a conversation between Ron and Patrice on a bridge in BlacKkKlansman where they debate the merits of Shaft vs. Super Fly. Patrice chooses Roundtree's film, saying that the drug dealers and pimps of Super Fly are a dangerous stereotype. But she hates pigs, threatening to break up with Ron over his job in a tension that's never completely resolved. (There's no answer in real-life, either, as Patrice is a construct.) Shaft is a detective and that film was rushed into production, grafting on a black lead at the eleventh hour to capitalize on the success of Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Shaft is a construct of the ruling class; Youngblood Priest of Super Fly is a threat to it. Cultural appropriation and the neutering it requires is an insidious thing that clouds the minds of even the most activated. Lee ends the picture with televisual footage of the murder of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, suggesting that the shared image continues to evolve, and continues to be political. He also suggests that Trump is a white supremacist not unlike the Keystone Klansmen of this film. Of course he is.
BlacKkKlansman isn't subtle. Why should it be? It's played in broad strokes that at times feel like caricature. Ron's partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), represents the physical aspect of Ron's KKK persona. Flip attends the meetings and ceremonies, charms the rednecks, and is, at one point, nominated to head up the Colorado Springs chapter over meek Walter (Ryan Eggold) and psychotic Felix (Jasper Paakkonen). One of the goons, Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), is a drunken, sub-vocal idiot. Much of the tension in the film is a product of Lee making fun of these proud boys while recognizing exactly how dangerous insecure, mediocre men can be when given a shared purpose and a group to collectively blame for the disappointment of their lives. A little-known story of the Klan's decline in the late-'40s finds activist Stetson Kennedy getting the popular Superman radio show, in a 16-part storyline called "Clan of the Fiery Cross," to mock the Klan's treehouse culture of secret handshakes and code words. Never underestimate the power of humiliation. Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), former Republican Louisiana State rep and a current vocal supporter of Donald Trump, is indeed presented as a buffoon who tells Ron that he can always tell when he's talking to a black person. He wants so desperately to be liked that, despite his title, he unctuously tells a pathetic groupie, Felix's wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), that next time he's in town, why, you just try to stop him from coming on over for a wholesome, home-cooked dinner.
Lee has made thirty films in as many years. He's produced and directed angry, amazing documentaries about Hurricane Katrina, about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, about Michael Jackson and Jim Brown. When he had trouble finding funding from a traditional studio, he made the incendiary Chi-Raq for Amazon and filmed a stage play (Pass Over) for them, too, then shot frequent collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man show Rodney King for Netflix. Lee is tireless and his output is consistently interesting and alive. His unofficial remake of Ganja & Hess, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, shows that Lee is more scholar than provocateur: a master of this medium who understands its power as communal storytelling device. BlacKkKlansman is his Marnie, a film from a master in his late prime that uses artifice as expressionism. Critics of its broadness forget his Malcolm X; critics of its fury forget the elegy of 25th Hour. The better conversation to have with Lee's work is no longer really whether it's good but how it is good, and why this way for this subject, and when can it enter the curriculum? For all the ugly truth of BlacKkKlansman, the picture is somehow light, somehow fun. Lee is at his angriest here--and his most playful. Buñuel made movies like this.
BlacKkKlansman is about how history is a closed loop, how racial division and violence grow from the loam of massive ignorance and unreasonable fear and the demagogues who would take advantage of the stupidest, most gullible of us. That's the kindling--our media streams have always, always been the match. Newspaper, radio, film, television, now the Internet. We fool ourselves that we're the first generation to suffer these bellicose morons. The fallacy of comparing Trump to Nazis is, you know, why stop there? If there's hope in the film, it's that the universe may move to correct itself because it has in the past. If there's hopelessness in the film, it's that there's no guarantee the pendulum won't snap at some point. Spike Lee has always depicted race in the United States not as an anomalous thing, as a tumour to remove and a cancer to treat, but as a foundational element of our character, inextricable from our national identity and impossible to ignore unless you're privileged or otherwise terminally gaffed. It follows, then, that one grows to appreciate Lee the more experience one acquires. The longer, one might say, one survives this gauntlet. He also happens to be a born filmmaker with a real ear for dialogue and eye for performance. Lee is the most important living American director and has been since Do the Right Thing. Remember that year when Driving Ms. Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture and Do the Right Thing wasn't even nominated? It's too poetic to be shocking. There is no better example of Lee's message all this time than that. Given the choice between an evergreen excoriation of an unbridgeable divide in our national character told with wit and verve, and a heart-warming fairy tale about how an old Jewish lady learns to love her black servant, white America went so far as to not let the first thing into the room. The idea that Hollywood is liberal is a lie perpetrated by the illiberal. What's that Molly Ivins's quote Kathleen Turner uses in her cabaret act?
Beloveds, these are some bad, ugly, angry times. And I am so freaked out. Hatred has stolen the conversation. The poor are now voting against themselves. But politics is not about left or right. It's about up and down. The few screwing the many.
And, man, I miss Molly Ivins. Tim Russert, too. But at least we still have Spike.