BlacKkKlansman (US, 2018)

Emotional truth

Spike Lee’s brilliant return to form has been criticised for not being true to the facts. Although it is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of infiltrating the KKK, most of the film is fiction. Anything that’s ‘based on a true story’ is unlikely to be trying to be a documentary so assuming the film must be entirely based on actuality is nonsense. That said, if it hadn’t been based on a true story, black cop infiltrates the KKK but needs a white cop to appear in his stead, the central premise would seem ridiculous. As it is, we get a slightly surreal situation entirely in keeping with the stupidity of racists, even though Jasper Pääkkönen’s portrayal as the demented Felix is slightly too ‘swivel-eyed’. However, it must be remembered that ‘going over-the-top’ is how Lee often works as he is a melodramatist at heart.

Lee’s also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as the former couches its narrative in terms of individuals whilst the latter requires analysis of society. Lee overcomes this, to a degree, with Brechtian devices, where he draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film in order to get us thinking. For example, in BlacKkKlansman a discussion of blaxploitation films of the time (it’s set in the early ’70s) is illustrated with split screen film posters: the ‘fourth wall’ is clearly broken. More powerfully the film ends with footage from Charlottesville, August 2017, and Trump’s disgraceful excuses for the fascists: there’s no doubt what Lee is saying about now.

Spoiler alert: Jack Lowe’s critique that the film whitewashes the police force makes some good points. The scene where the overtly racist cop is arrested contradicts Flip’s (the Jewish cop who was Stallworth’s proxy) statement earlier in the film that the police are ‘family’ and so even tolerate racists in their ranks. Both the chief of police and Stallworth’s sergeant come across as too liberal particularly as Stallworth was the first black cop in Colorado Springs; the conventions of portrayals of the time, from a liberal perspective, would suggest that Stallworth would have had a much harder time. The arrest of the racist cop is so unbelievable that maybe that was Lee’s point and the seemingly happy resolution is a fantasy. Lee saves his trademark ‘double-dolly’, a shot where characters ride on the camera and are moved without walking, for the final scene when Stallworth, and his black activist girlfriend, move forward in tandem, guns drawn, as a KKK cross burns in the distance. This shot signifies that the characters are not in control of events and so further undermines the happy ending. That this is followed by the Charlottesville montage is further evidence of this.

Lee proselytises through Kwame Ture’s (aka Stokely Carmichael) rousing speech and Harry Belafonte’s cameo, discussing ‘old time’ racism with youngsters. These are powerful scenes. In addition, whilst at film school (New York University) Lee almost didn’t get to complete his studies as some in the faculty objected to his short ‘The Answer’ where he emphasised that the ‘classic’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a racist film. His professors (as did mine) merely used it to demonstrate innovative film craft rather than a disgraceful recruiting tool for the KKK. Lee incorporates footage of the film where, in different places, both the activists and the KKK watch the film with predictably different reactions.

It’s gratifying to see BlacKkKlansman do good business at the box office, Lee won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the film, and kudos to Jordan Peele (of the brilliant Get Out) for suggesting Lee make the film and for Blumhouse Productions for producing.

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