Spike Lee takes aim against hate in a humorous and harrowing feature

Savina Petkova on Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018)

SPIKE LEE’S NEW JOINT WON THE Grand Prix award at Cannes this year. Since then, BlacKkKlansman has been described as “radical”, “biting”, “blistering”, and countless more provocative activist adjectives, which, while justified, do not cover the entirety of complex emotional range that the film bestows. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective in Colorado Springs Police Department, the film follows his undercover infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan. Resting on the paradox of a black cop infiltrating into a white supremacist organisation, BlacKkKlansman oscillates between comedy and drama, its robust treatment of racial issues underscoring a damning verdict on humanity, 2018: inconsolably flawed, we are our own worst enemy.

Grounding his script in a real-life story of racial discrimination, we are not expecting Lee, the director of Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), to feign anything other than an activist ethos. This is a poignant story that must be told subjectively in order to be received as a visceral piece of filmmaking; as a result, BlacKkKlansman permeates one’s conscience long after the final shot desaturates the red white and blue of the stars and strips into a polarising black and white. Besides the obvious racial connotation, the monochrome flag provides us with the films chief metaphor of paradox. On a narrative level, the black detective is paired with a white Jewish partner, Flip Zinnerman (Adam Driver), to be his face for the KKK. Regarding genre, Lee alternates comic sequences with appalling displays of racial abuse. These emotional dialectics transform the subjectivity of the film into an affecting artwork that reaches out to all, regardless of race, gender, religion, or age.

Feeding off Stallworth’s indispensable optimism and dignity, the film doesn’t hesitate to address discriminatory politics in the 1970s. We see the young motivated man facing name-calling, subtle or outright gruesome jokes, disbelief in his capabilities in this all-white police environment. Coupling the issue of police violence and racial bias, BlacKkKlansman takes a brave stand to the institutional implementation of hate, which seems to have imbued American since its birth. Yet, Lee’s sublimation device is comedy to the rescue: there is comic detail in the spine-chilling sequences of assault, or the narrative halts in favour of a long scene of club dancing spectacle to R&B classic, “Too Late To Turn Back Now”. In humour, Lee finds humanity.

Both comedy and tragedy narratives rest on an error, while the former is devoid of pathos, the two hold transformative power in addressing social issues. The comic tone of the first half opens the audience up to what becomes the seriousness of the subject. Without omitting the specific pain of black history, BlacKkKlansman is relatable to any spectator due to the films weaving of multi-layered emotional identification, distributed between Ron and Flip. Lee treats the undercover policeman as a metaphor an an ideal American identity: two separate origins, black man and white man coming together. In a humorous remark about “how to define a black man’s voice” and respectively how to mimic it, we see Ron and Flip exchange tips on how to talk across race. The narrative doubling device itself has comic effect, since a white Jewish man is standing for the black detective when meeting the members of the “Organisation” in person. The most intuitive and suspicious of the Klan, Felx (a daunting performance by Jasper Pääkkönen) uses all the anti-semitic tools (such as a “Jew-detector” and interrogations at gunpoint) to issue that Flip is a “pure Aryan”. Naturally for the operation to work, Flip must denounce his Jewish ancestry repeatedly. While Ron insists on their shared purpose in this battle, Flip seems morally unperturbed by his denial of personhood, growing up as a secular man never raised in a Jewish tradition. Flip is a man for whom ethnic or religious delineations are no longer important, he is a Colorado Cop. Yet the excruciating reality of the devil lurks in the details; in police beatings, hate crime, anti-semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, Neo-Fascism the heart of society us under attack. Hate comes from a divide we form inside our hearts: whether is it “us” and “them”, or “me” and “you”.

In a self-reflexive move, Lee addresses one of the landmarks of American cinema: D.W.Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which inspired the rebirth of the Klan in the following year. The director’s critical ambivalent towards the historic film draws attention to the role of cinema in a politically charged time. Scenes of Griffith’s film are shown as a background to an abhorrent celebration in the Klan, the laughter and cheers unbearable to watch, yet the film gulps its own poison, forcing us to partake in repulsive joyfulness. Often fixated on the oh-so-beneficial functions of cinema and its appeal to the imaginary, we often forget that in the same zone of inspiration it can also transgress into the harmful. BlackKkKlansman reminds us of a gruesome truth, even in its comic guidance, that humanity is harming itself. Positioned in the same pantheon as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018), Spike Lee’s new film exercises a harsh parenting technique: as children, spectators will fall down, bruise their knees, bleed all over, but they will stand up, unaided, and keep on limping towards better times.

Release: August 24, 2018

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.