The first image in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman is a scene from Gone With the Wind. The last is a memorial to Heather Heyer, murdered one year ago while protesting racism in Charlottesville. In between is a movie that, as much as it is telling a true story, is also meditating on the ways that the images we consume of ourselves and of others impacts us. Blackkklansman is not just a great piece of filmmaking from one of America’s finest filmmakers, it’s a great piece of film criticism from the man who might be America’s best film critic.
Ron Stallworth is a real black cop in Colorado Springs, Colorado who infiltrated his local Ku Klux Klan in partnership with a Jewish cop. Ron dealt with the KKK – including Grand Wizard David Duke – over the phone, ingratiating himself, while Flip Zimmerman took on the role in face-to-face meetings with the local racists who, it turns out, were cooking up a serious and potentially deadly attack on black student activists.
John David Washington is Ron, who is the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Ron has ambition, and the records room is too small for him. He wants to be out in the field, and he thinks that with his skin and his natural hairdo he can work undercover in places no other Colorado Springs cop can penetrate. But rather than send him after thieves or drug dealers, his superiors send him to infiltrate the Black Student Union, who is hosting Kwame Ture (formerly known as Black Panther Stokely Carmichael). Ron is confronted by realities that he has never internalized, realities as simple as the truth behind old Tarzan movies. Ture talks about loving Tarzan as a kid, and rooting on the white man as he battled and killed black natives. Sitting in that lecture, going from being the only black guy in a room to being surrounded by people who look like him, Stallworth begins to understand that as a cop he has been rooting for Tarzan.
What he does next the film plays as a spur of the moment decision – seeing a recruiting ad from the local Ku Klux Klan in the paper, Ron calls and puts on a ‘white voice’ and convinces the racist on the other side of the line that he’s a white nationalist too. The ruse goes better than expected, and the racists want to meet Ron, to bring Ron in to their inner sanctum. The real Ron Stallworth can’t go, so he recruits a fellow cop to play him in face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, real Ron keeps manning the phones, getting in touch with and close to KKK Grand Wizard David Duke while fake Ron becomes more and more a part of the local chapter… which is planning some sort of attack in the weeks to come.
To complicate matters, Ron has begun falling in love with a woman from his other assignment, a radical student activist named Patrice (Laura Harrier, aka Liz from Spider-Man: Homecoming). Just as he has bifurcated his persona to infiltrate the Klan, bringing in a white man to play him, so he has bifurcated himself to woo Patrice, hiding the fact that he’s a cop from a woman who believes that all police are agents of state violence and that a cop can never be involved in black liberation.
Washington, son of Denzel (and man, sometimes he really SOUNDS like Denzel), is spectacular as Ron. He doesn’t play Ron as divided – the movie creates that well enough around him – but rather as focused, and as such myopic. Ron’s journey isn’t about deciding whether he’s a black man or a cop, but rather about coming to understand the conditioning that has brought him to where he is today – the images and the social messaging that taught him how to be who he is. Patrice and Ron have a long, fun conversation about blaxploitation movies on a date, a conversation that not only defines the characters according to which heroes they like, but also that puts into sharp relief what representation truly means. Ron argues for characters like Super Fly, while Patrice says that no matter the positive qualities of that guy, he’s still a pimp (could Spike Lee have known that Super Fly would be back in theaters at the same time as his movie? I can’t imagine, but what prescience). To be represented onscreen only through violence and criminality, she argues, is still terrible representation.
Ron’s awakening is mirrored by that of his partner, Flip. Adam Driver brings his usual hangdog gangliness to the role, but he has such an interestingly subtle role to play. Flip is a Jew, but only in a technical sense – he never went to synagogue or had a bar mitzvah or even knew any other Jews. He’s the seculariest Jew there ever was. He hangs at the edges of the low-level racism of the Colorado Springs police department, not really being a part of it, accepting the thin blue line of protecting bad cops, until he starts getting into the Klan. There his Jewishness, not at all a part of his identity, blares at some of the Klansmen. They can all but smell him, and slowly Flip starts to realize that when it comes to racism – especially ingrained, institutional racism – it doesn’t matter how he identifies. Identification is placed on him, and he starts to experience his own Jewishness through the hatred he finds in the Klan.
That they work undercover only heightens the thematic aspect of these men trying to pass in a society that doesn’t want them to pass. Mild spoilers for the end of the movie, but it’s telling that their final undercover sting sees them playing themselves, not pretending to be anyone else. As they travel through the nature of representation and understand the ways the world puts images upon you, they figure out how to grab control of their own image and use it against bad guys.
But that doesn’t mean the movie ends with some kind of quick and easy answer. On Twitter Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, critiqued the film for giving us another image of cops as heroes in a civil rights struggle when they are in fact anything but (should anyone feel the need to argue this, I hope they first research Bull Connor and COINTELPRO before doing so). But I don’t think what Lee is doing here is that simple, and I don’t think he’s telling a story about a hero cop – or even villainous cops, although they exist in this film. He’s telling a story about a black man coming to understand more fully what it means to be black in a post-Civil Rights Era America, and trying to figure out how to make change within that reality.
In the film’s third act Blackkklansman brings us back to the turn of the 20th century with cross-cutting between a Klan meeting where they are showing Birth of A Nation and a Black Student Union meeting where a speaker recounts the tale of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Turner, played by Harry Belafonte, has brought with him images of the torture and lynching of Washington – real images, true photos – taken by a man who later sold them as souvenirs. The movie was released a year before the lynching, and Turner speculates that its vision of a heroic Klan stringing up black folks inspired the horrors visited upon Washington.
In this sequence Lee shows us the power of the image. The Klan boils over in gleeful shouts and sieg heils as DW Griffith’s powerful scenes play out before them; even Flip Zimmerman seems caught up in the moment. Meanwhile Turner solemnly displays the pictures of Washington’s burnt, mutilated, disrespected and brutalized body, while also telling the story of the man’s suffering – explaining how he knew Washington, how he watched from a window as it all went down.
On one side the image dehumanizes, on the other it brings us closer to human experience, no matter how horrible. But most importantly, and I think what Lee’s final thesis is saying, is the fact that an image belongs to no one. Just as Ron and Flip learn that images can define them against their will, the movie tells us that we can redefine images as we wish. Turner takes images that were postcards, intended to be FOND REMEMBRANCES of the murder of a human being, and turns them into heartbreaking and sad ways to honor a man who lost his life. Griffith intended Birth of a Nation to be a rousing call to arms, but Lee reappropriates the film as a horror movie, showing its effect on depraved (and, maybe in Flip’s case, not depraved) minds.
This informs how Lee approaches the KKK, and how we must approach the resurgence of white nationalism in this country today. Lee presents the KKK as a bunch of clowns, fools, ignorant shits who are blaming boogeymen for their own failings. He doesn’t despise them so much as he pities them, as he laughs at them. But at the same time he understands they’re dangerous; one of the big cultural problems in 21st century America leading up to the Trump election was our inability to hold both truths at once. The alt-right were jokes, pathetic fools, losers, living in mom’s basement, ironic examples of just how not-great the white race is. But they’re also Dylann Roof and James Alex Fields. Just as the blaxploitation images are both silly and culturally dangerous, so the white supremacists are both clowns and killers. In fact, Lee shows us, it’s the way they are clowns, the way they feel like losers, that makes them so very dangerous.
And they get their inspiration from the movies. Birth of a Natio led to a Klan resurgence at the turn of the 20th century. Today’s white supremacists and misogynists talk about Red Pills and use movie memes – weaponized images – to rally their base. Lee, who is probably the greatest student of film this side of Scorsese, understands the power and the responsibility of images, and he understands that we must be in constant conversation with them, otherwise they become degenerate and dangerous. He’s not looking to ban Birth of a Nation – no one in the film makes that argument – but he’s looking to contextualize it, to make it understood for what it is, to never let its poison be forgotten.
Spike Lee is asking us to interrogate the images we consume, the representations we see all around us. That is the essence of real film criticism, not just telling you which movie is worth your money this weekend, or hand-delivering marketing quotes to studio flacks. True film criticism is a conversation with the images, wrestling with the ideas presented and trying to get their full secrets expressed. True film criticism understands the power of even the lamest image, even the lowest art. We live in a world where a frog cartoon helped get a racist elected – we must never again downplay the power of images.
He leaves us with powerful images on their own, with footage of last year’s Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. These images – shocking a year ago, now sort of the background material for newscasts – take on a new pain in the context of Blackkklansman. It seemed almost unbelievable in 1970s America that the Klan could be coming back, and it seems almost doubly unbelievable in 21st century America, but the reality is that hate is like herpes, always there, always waiting for a flare up.
The footage of the hate rally sums up so much of what played out for the past 24 hours – these ridiculous men in their polo shirts and with their dumb tiki torches, so laughable… until the fights start. Until the car plows through a crowd. Until Heather Heyer lays bleeding, dying, in the middle of the street. Heather’s face is the last image Spike Lee shows us before cutting to an upside down American flag – a symbol of distress – that slowly fades into a black and white flag. It’s a breathtaking image, one that silences a theater that had previously been laughing at the film’s high energy. It feels like a callback to the opening of Lee’s Malcolm X, where an American flag burns over footage of the Rodney King beating.
By having Heather Heyer as the last human image of his movie, Spike Lee is reminding us that hate is not a black problem. It isn’t Ron and Patrice’s problem. It isn’t a Jewish problem. It isn’t Flip’s problem. It’s a white problem, and while I don’t want to speak for Lee, I think a lot of what he is saying is that black liberation has to be a collective effort.
Part of that collective effort must be examining the images we consume and create. Again, Lee isn’t calling for anything to be banned or burned, but he is calling for everything to be taken seriously, to be watched with clarity and an inquisitive nature. What does the color of the film’s hero tell you? How are people of different races portrayed? Who is violent and who is a peacemaker? We are what we think, and what we think can be profoundly impacted by what we watch. We must never allow ourselves to again be passive observers.
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