‘The problem of the twentieth century’ the famous African-American philosopher W. E. B Dubois once said, ‘is the problem of the color line’. In Spike Lee’s latest feature BlacKkKlansman, the director revisits that sustaining ‘color-line’ and its problems in America today. Provoked from last year’s escalation in Charlottesville, Virginia, where far-right, white supremacists and progressive activists violently clashed over the pulling down of Confederate monuments, Lee delivers a sharp corrective to the President’s subsequent statements. Slapping aside Trump’s downplaying pronouncements of ‘violence on both sides’ and ‘decent people’ among the far-right activists, Lee uses police officer Ron Stallworth’s intriguing account of infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan as the vehicle to delve into the polarising state of contemporary American race-relations. Yet Lee’s urgency to fire back at the Trump Administration undermines some subtler, conflicting issues in both the past history and present resonances of BlacKkKlansman, which sugars his ‘bitter pill’ to the current condition of America.
Stallworth (John D. Washington), a young black man in Colorado Springs, joins the local police force in 1979. Eager to prove himself despite the condescension and racism from his fellow officers, he is soon tipped out of the records department and into an undercover detail on the nascent Black Power movement in the area. Caught between his professional aspirations and an unexpected romantic relationship with one of his targets, the Angela Davis-inspired Patrice (Laura Harrier), Stallworth decides to use his initiative to switch from one ‘Power’ movement to another. Making an explicit, provocative phone-call to the local chapter of the KKK, Stallworth and his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) embark on an investigation of duality, deception and danger as they grow ever closer to the white supremacists and their leader, David Duke (Topher Grace). As tensions heighten in the community, black student activists against the local white supremacists, the net begins to close on Ron. Can his intervention make a difference before lives are lost?
Appropriate to Dubois’ ‘color line’, Lee draws literal and conceptual lines across the screen throughout BlacKkKlansman, exploring the lives on each side of the division in alternating considerate and stark fashion. Speaking to the resurgence of explicitly racial identity politics in America at present, Lee lays out the clear differences between the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Power movements. On the one hand, there is the self-adulating exclusivity that thrives on purity and dominance while, on the other, those redesigning selfhood and community organisation out of racialised oppression. Nowhere is this clearer than the striking, powerful juxtaposition of a Klan initiation (a ritual that witnesses D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation played to the frenzied exultation of the Klansman) and, elsewhere, a cameo-appearance from prominent social activist Harry Belafonte describing a public lynching to a packed community meeting. It is a highly effective sequence and an uncompromising rebuke to Trump’s rhetoric: these two viewpoints and their respective histories are not the same. At times, Lee draws out the more complex questions of identity and politics beyond that distinct line- Driver’s Flip ‘passing for white’ despite his Jewish heritage; Ron and Patrice’s differing views on institutional reform versus political liberation; and the position of women in the White Power movement (given in the genuinely conflicting performance from Ashlie Atkinson as KKK housewife Connie). Yet even with its comedic scenes (most notably Stallworth’s telephone exchanges with David Duke and a knowingly satirical cameo from Alec Baldwin), Lee maintains a tense, quiet realism that only occasionally allows the inspired blaxploitation aesthetic and period music to surface. Overall, Lee has more serious than satirical intent with the continuity he explicitly draws between 1979 and 2018.
Despite Lee, Kevin Willmott and Charlie Wachtel’s screenplay compromising psychological examination for political utilisation of its subject, Washington delivers an impressive and laconically amusing lead performance. His portrayal of the man’s determination is also peppered with moments of intriguing confusion, even frustration, at his contradictory role (especially in the scenes with Patrice and the Black Power activists- is always on the job or genuinely sympathetic to the cause?) Topher Grace’s Duke is also compelling as a contrast to the otherwise simplistically-conceived viciousness or stupidity of the other Klansman. Where Jasper Pääkkönen almost chews the scenery with his sadistic aggression as Felix, Grace’s Duke can get under the skin with his banal respectability. Duke’s racism is no less perverse but given an alternating folksy and articulate tone. While the screenplay over-eggs the resonances with clanging obvious references to ‘America First’ and Ron’s shocked declaration that ‘a man like Duke could never be in the White House’ (for those slow on the uptake, read here: Trump) Grace’s performance does underline the, albeit obvious, point that white supremacy will not just emerge in the form of burning crosses, swastikas and white hoods (a fact similarly, if more creatively explored in producer Jordan Peele’s horror debut Get Out).
Yet in such polarising times, Lee’s stance merely reflects a desire to deal expediently with the resurgent fascists and white supremacists in 2018. As director Boots Riley has noted, wider institutional structures, especially the police, are left virtually unscathed and historical reimagining and anachronisms blunt a more incisive critique of the present and even the film’s current audience. However righteous, Lee’s strike is limited to the symptoms (of which Trump’s presidency is merely one) of the current climate in America.