BLACKkKLANSMAN (2018, Spike Lee)
Spike Lee opened his 1992 masterpiece MALCOLM X with footage from the Rodney King beating. It set the tone for the rest of the film and placed it in a context. With BLACKkKLANSMAN, he closes the movie with footage from Charlottesville (exactly a year before this was released) — not setting the tone, but connecting obvious dots in order to continue a conversation between the film’s characters and its audience. All throughout his career, Spike has been talking with his audience, and it’s never a comfortable, cajoling debate — it’s contentious, illuminating, and often galvanizing.
What he does open this movie with is a phony propaganda film from 1957 starring Alec Baldwin as a George Wallace type, spewing bigoted bile while newsreel footage is projected across his face. Baldwin coughs and stutters, trying to get through the scene with several takes — here’s Lee showing that a guy like this has to choke through his own words to get this evil out; it’s so disgusting that a person can hardly stand to speak it in one breath. And throughout the running time, he continues to confront the audience with the everyday thoughts of terrorists — sure, we’ve all read speeches and seen ugly tweets, but to sit there for more than two hours hearing the Klan characters continually spew venomous slurs and explore their own hatred… it’s not comfortable or easy. And Spike is asking his white audience to just try to endure it for a little while, then imagine it for your whole life.
What’s it like to be confronted with this antagonism? Adam Driver’s character Flip says “I never used to think about [being Jewish]. Now I think about it all the time.” To be hated for who you are is to confront that identity, and make it part of your conscious self. So Flip goes back to his roots, just as Ron does with his — he’s not just undercover when he becomes part of the rebellious black student council of which his love interest is the president. He does stand for the liberation of his people. The more he thinks about it, the more he digs in. So for everyone watching who wonders why there’s a Black Lives Matter, they have their answer.
And words are easy enough to dispute with more words — you can hear the text of Baldwin’s speech at the beginning and argue with it. But Lee gets down to business and argues using every tool of the cinema he can: and the first act is awash with great set pieces. It goes from an empowering rally (Corey Hawkins in a one-scene performance is astounding) to an all-black nightclub where the revelers dance (“I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love”) and show all aspects of their humanity. It’s a sensuous, sexy dance scene, photographed with velvet tones and mixed with adoration of the music. It’s easy to throw verbal darts at a straw man like Baldwin’s character (i.e. Trump) who says minorities are rapists and thugs; it’s another to explore the opposite in sound and image. These two sequences are where Lee’s indulgent tendencies (critics complain that he loves to take his time) pay off.
Never more confident in his directorial skill, Lee is every bit as blunt and didactic as ever — but he looks so good doing it. At one point, he draws out a long L-cut between scenes at the police station and then at a Klan meet-up. After Ron unmasks evil cop Landers, his colleagues say the police is a brotherhood and they look out for their own; Ron replies “Does that sound like any other group you know?” and we hear the gun shots ring out — for several seconds before Lee (and his career editing partner Barry Alexander Brown) finally takes us into the woods. We also get his signature dolly shot, another double-take-hug, and wouldn’t you know it, Isiah Whitlock Jr. saying “Sheeeeeit.” Lee quoting himself isn’t just doing his greatest hits; he’s putting a stamp on it. (There’s even an exchange of “Ya dig?” “Sho nuff”).
But this movie is about Ron Stallworth — it’s based on his memoir and focuses the problems of a nation onto his capable shoulders. In doing so, it takes him on a journey where he mirrors the black American experience over time. Stallworth starts out a slave (working the records room, stepping and fetching for white officers), then becomes (according to Patrice) a “house Negro,” and eventually a leader, an activist, and savior. Lee hasn’t empowered a black protagonist this optimistically since MALCOLM X, covering so much ground and appraising so much self-actualization. Denzel’s son John David Washington is tremendous in the role (after seeing enough of BALLERS, I had no idea he was this strong) and Lee is having all the fun in the world directing him. This is a work of immense exuberance, humor, pain, and anger, but it never has to shout too loud. Spike Lee is 61 years old. All he has to do is get out his paintbrush and our jaws will hit the floor.