Film & TV

BlacKkKlansman Is Spike Lee’s Most Confusing Film Yet

Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features)
But the media won’t say so, because Lee has made a career of appeasing guilty white liberals.

Nearly 30 years ago, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing struck such fear in white liberals that New York magazine’s political columnist and its reviewer, both in the same issue, wrongly predicted that the film would incite black rioting. Since then, black social unrest has become a political device relentlessly manipulated by the Ferguson- and Charlottesville-agitating progressive media to the point that Lee’s stupidly incendiary new film, BlacKkKlansman, was even awarded a grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a site of progressive film culture where anti-Americanism has recently ruled. The elite, post-Obama media yearns for revolution, as if giving blacks a hot foot will incite government-changing riots; so one might well suspect that Spike Lee’s time has finally come.

But establishment alarmists have always skirted the inevitable fact that Lee’s agitation never really works. Do the Right Thing, the only box-office success of Lee’s 22-feature-films career, failed to bring about Armageddon — or even an apology from mainstream-media race hysterics. And BlacKkKlansman isn’t good enough to raise tempers that aren’t already enflamed. The delusion that this movie is “amazing” and “brilliant” and “timely,” as the new Spike Lee expert, singer Barbra Streisand, tweeted, is merely a symptom of the era’s political derangement.

Lee begins the skullduggery of BlacKkKlansman by showcasing a black male protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who superficially resembles the upstart heroes of 1970s  blaxploitation movies. (Washington’s smart-aleck scowling is not a characterization so much as attitudinizing the same way his father Denzel does.) Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force without conforming to any behavioral manual or dress code. He is unaccountably insolent; either a radical or a dandy, strutting sullenly, doing shadow karate moves and coiffed with razor-sharp style — referring to his Afro as “a Natural,” the first credible clue to the film’s 1970s setting.

Yet BlacKkKlansman’s plot is unnatural: This rookie police detective idly plans a sting operation against the local, hitherto unseen, Ku Klux Klan. There’s no motivation by incidents of Klan activity in the area other than a newspaper ad; his investigation is based on a phone call, à la Woodward and Bernstein. Lee, the film’s team of screenwriters, and co-producer Jordan (Get Out) Peele apparently harbor such fanatical ethnic paranoia that they suggest blacks like Stallworth are automatically equipped with Klan radar.

Lee never sticks to fact or logic when harangue is easier.

The Stallworth stereotype, an appeal to nostalgic black militancy, is the heart of this film’s presumed satire. But Stallworth’s impertinence isn’t sufficient to create a character. Lee isn’t interested in making a movie about the experience of being a young radical caught up in personal or cultural ambitions. Oddly, Stallworth has no community other than the vapid college-student activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), whom he meets on an undercover assignment to monitor a speech by Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture but performed by actor Corey Hawkins as if doing a David Oyelowo impersonation). Their flirtation is specious, and their political talk merely resembles the superficial sensitivities of political grandstanders. In a good film, their posturing (and complementary Naturals) would ridicule the fashion-plate opportunists who tally points on race and society as a game.

Instead, the film is undermined by scenes of Stallworth confounding his co-workers and flummoxing idiot Klansmen (including Topher Grace lampooning David Duke). Due to a conceptual mishap, these scenes don’t evoke the fun of Bernie Casey, Fred Williamson, or even Rudy Ray Moore movies like Dolemite and The Human Tornado that flattered post-’60s black militancy. Lee caters to current black movie and TV-audience ignorance of the race rhetoric and effrontery of preceding generations. Like the naïve Get Out, BlacKkKlansman gainsays the distress of black Millennials; Lee never sticks to fact or logic when harangue is easier. Streisand and the Cannes jury must not have seen Lee’s Chi-Raq, in which a laundry list of social complaints accounted for his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink carnival of political grievances (the mixed metaphor is Spike’s).

***

BlacKkKlansman is a poor detective tale and simple-minded Millennial noir because Stallworth’s exposé of a sect of American racists and terrorist (all unhealthy-looking white miscreants) never feels like discovery, just a continuation of his hip cynicism. Stallworth teams with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop hiding his own ethnic identity, to impersonate Stallworth in order to gain entry to Klan meetings. (The weak joke that Klansmen mistake Stallworth’s “King’s English” grammar as proof of his race doesn’t work — Washington speaks in recognizably “urban” tonalities that have nothing to do with syntax.) So instead of being realistic, this film is a fantasy based on entrapment. The same disreputable methods formerly criticized in the FBI’s COINTELPRO sting (in which the agency aimed to discredit such subversives as Martin Luther King Jr.) are used here for laughs. Lee unethically pretends that deception and subterfuge and dishonesty are justified as long as it suits his political purpose. (Cue Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” instead of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Lucky Man,” for a legacy of pure fatuousness.)

Dramatically, BlacKkKlansman is another example showing that Hollywood no longer knows how to tell a story. Lee never does; he repeats his shtick from Bamboozled (the most exasperating of all his films) by blaming Old Hollywood through the opening scene’s grim mockery of Gone with the Wind and, later, misinterpreting D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Only poorly tutored Millennial film students will swallow this bilge.

Despite coming from the hip-hop era, Lee was never a hip-hop artist; he rarely displayed the postmodern sophistication of hip-hop musicians whose songs reinterpreted cultural history (from what Chuck D called “intellectual Vietnam” to what Kanye West called “Chiraq”). BlacKkKlansman also fails to dig into the intricacies of noir and black history as did Charles Burnett’s police drama The Glass Shield; Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, in which Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum memorably characterized the emotional contrasts of the fabled black–Jewish alliance (Goldblum screaming “Never again!” during a car chase); and Ivan Dixon’s CIA-infiltration drama The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Lee twice mishandles scenes of a Klan cross-burning ritual, never equaling the Coen brothers’ burning crosses/Wizard of Oz jest in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He also falls short of Madonna’s audacious cross-burning “Like a Prayer” music video directed by Mary Lambert.

Lee operates from the peculiar antipathy of the black middle class that remains angry despite its own successful pop-culture maneuvering.

Consider BlacKkKlansman’s “Infiltrate Hate” ad poster, which recycles the font used for Gordon Parks’s Shaft in Africa. Lee’s advertising is usually his cleverest ploy. But this campaign’s unclear emphasis on police as white-hooded villains carrying an Afro comb is mere exploitation of an issue minus the sincere dramatic investigation of a crisis like in Melvin Van Peebles’s Panther. Lee leaves it unclear whether cops are good or bad; the simplistic association with the Klan is a weak meme for a born Madison Ave. hack.

All these pop-culture miscues indicate that Lee operates from the peculiar antipathy of the black middle class that remains angry despite its own successful pop-culture maneuvering. His most offensive — and thereby most effective — stunt is the end credit that turns the American flag upside down, then shifts from egalitarian red, white, and blue to fascistic black and white. It’s a millionaire (film nerd’s) scam artist’s version of a Colin Kaepernick prank.

Social satirist Lee relies on sophomoric sarcasm, displaying the profanity-laden bitterness of a street bum with a media pundit’s frame of mind. That’s how he botched the still-urgent subject of war-torn Chicago, in Chi-Raq; and how he now, in BlacKkKlansman, shifts gears from Stallworth’s personal narrative to an unhinged blame-game aimed at President Trump, using Michael Moore–style slanted “documentary” footage of the Charlottesville fiasco as if hot-topic propaganda were sufficient to reflect the complicated range of feelings and argument currently roiling the U.S. and the world. Only a Cannes jury or the claque of American film critics taking anti-Trump political positions could transition from fearing Lee’s muddle to cheering it.

BlacKkKlansman falls apart completely, late in the story, when Lee introduces a fictional orator, Mr. Turner, played by Harry Belafonte. Turner sits in a wicker chair like the famous photo of Black Panther Huey Newton and lectures aghast college activists about the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington as photographed by Fred Gildersleeve. This redundant lecture takes further advantage of Belafonte’s exploitation by the film-industry race hustlers who first manipulated the aged performer-activist as a mouthpiece to promote the factitious 12 Years a Slave. If Spike Lee’s appalling career can be said to have a low point, this might be it. Sticking to an obsolete victimhood mindset is certainly the low point of Belafonte’s film career.

Rather than keeping close to believable details of Stallworth’s life and career, BlacKkKlansman offers fake outrage in the manner of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as if it justifies irremediable resentment against white racism. Ironically, Lee’s entire career has been built on appeasing guilty white liberals. That’s why you can never trust his always-fawning reviews, which are even less trustworthy this time since mainstream media have joined the #Resistance and pretends to follow Patrice’s accusatory question to Stallworth: “Are you for the revolution and for the liberation of black people?” Worse than cant, that line is smug and complacent, like the film and its director.

IN THE NEWS: Kanye West Riffs on His Love For Donald Trump

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

Most Popular

Education

George Packer Gets Mugged by Reality

Few journalists are as respected by, and respectable to, liberals as The Atlantic’s George Packer. The author of The Assassin's Gate (2005), The Unwinding (2013), and a recently published biography of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, Packer has written for bastions of liberal thought from the New York Times Magazine ... Read More
Politics & Policy

CNN: Everything but the News

For a while, we thought MSNBC had temporarily usurped CNN as the font of fake news — although both networks had tied for the most negative coverage (93 percent of all their news reports) of President Trump’s first 100 days in office. A cynic would argue that CNN had deliberately given Trump undue coverage ... Read More