Suppose you were told that a prominent filmmaker had made a Trump-era movie about racism and the KKK that embodies the assumptions of establishment liberalism and annoys the radical Left with its racial optimism and sympathetic attitude toward American law enforcement. How many guesses, I wonder, would it take before you landed on Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee as the director?
BlacKkKlansman, the latest Lee joint, tells the unlikely 1970s-era story of a black Colorado Springs detective, Ron Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, under a huge era-appropriate Afro), who spent a period of time impersonating an enthusiastic KKK recruit in phone calls with local klansmen, while his white partner (Adam Driver, a welcome live-wire presence) handled the in-person end of the infiltration project.
In real life, the operation was an interesting but relatively inconsequential affair. In Lee’s more elaborate and exciting version, there’s a bombing plot for the heroes to uncover and forestall, a lot of personal danger for Driver’s infiltrator (whose character is Jewish in the movie but probably wasn’t in real life), a personal appearance by David Duke (Topher Grace), and a romance between Stallworth and a local black-nationalist student organizer (Laura Harrier) who disapproves of her beau’s profession but whose group ultimately needs police protection from the Klan.
And there is also a lot, and I mean a lot, of business intended to link the whole story to the rise of Donald Trump. The movie is bookended by a fictional white-supremacist propaganda film narrated by Alec Baldwin (here playing a Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, but of course better known these days for a different impersonation) and by the real footage of last year’s Charlottesville chaos and Trump’s unfortunate response thereto. In between you have all kinds of heavy-handed moments, from KKK members toasting to “America first!” and murmuring about making America great again to an exchange where one cop frets that somebody like Duke might get elected president someday and Stallworth acts shocked and says it couldn’t happen and of course the audience is supposed to groan because Trump . . .
But if the movie is a polemic, it isn’t a radical one — because in groaning, crucially, the audience isn’t supposed to think that Stallworth is himself a dupe for being the first black cop on the force in Colorado Springs, or that his Black Power girlfriend is right to call his fellow lawmen “pigs,” or that Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, who shows up in Colorado Springs early in the story to give a Black Power speech that Stallworth attends in an informer’s role, is right when he urges the cop-in-disguise to arm himself because the revolution’s coming.
Instead, BlacKkKlansman is surprisingly anti-radical, surprisingly okay with the Man. It’s a movie that portrays racism as a virus in the American bloodstream, and white-supremacist terrorism as a recurring American horror. But it’s also a movie that ultimately endorses meliorism, not revolution — putting its faith in the power of enlightened law enforcement and inter-racial friendship, and implying that its racist villains are exceptional rather than the norm.
Intentionally or not, that message places Lee’s movie firmly on the establishment side of the ongoing liberal-versus-Left debate about how to interpret the rise of Donald Trump. Its KKK preoccupation fits well with the establishment-liberal obsession with overt white nationalists — think of the 17,000 Richard Spencer profiles in center-left outlets, or the outsize mainstream-media coverage of the fizzling white-nationalist follow-ups to Charlottesville. And its pro-police plot reifies the establishment-liberal vision of a heroic law-enforcement team galloping in to put white nationalism to flight. (Ron Stallworth, meet Bob Mueller.)
Meanwhile the story rejects, by implication, the post-Obama Left’s more structural and radical vision of how racism works and how it must be fought and where Trump really came from. Here racist cops are bad apples whom good cops can eventually drum out of the force, racist whites are cross-burners whom good policework can isolate, and racial progress is possible if you just keep certain Very Bad Guys — a Duke then, a Trump now — firmly in their place. Even the call-outs to the cinema of southern revanchism — clips from Gone with the Wind, a scene in which the latter-day Klansmen watch The Birth of a Nation and cheer — mostly highlight the gulf between the old white supremacy, which actually ruled American culture, and the misfits and goobers whose antics Stallworth and his partner are investigating.
The popular left-wing conceit that Trump is a bone-deep racist and a totally normal, non-KKK Republican, and that everyone to the right of Bill Clinton — and indeed all whites save the truly, fully woke — is complicit in white supremacy, gets hinted at in a Richard Nixon sticker at a Klan hangout and other minor flourishes. But the rest of the movie tacitly rejects that idea, preferring a vision of racism as a grand-wizard virus mostly just in need of quarantine and treatment.
And you don’t have to take it from me. BlacKkKlansman has been vigorously critiqued from the left by Boots Riley, whose piece of anti-capitalist agitprop Sorry to Bother You I reviewed last issue in these pages. Riley, a true radical, accuses Lee of being far too kind to his black-policeman protagonist and to the cops generally, arguing that it’s police officers (black as well as white) who are the real racist oppressors, not the barely relevant KKK. Noting that Lee’s company helped design a minority-outreach campaign for the NYPD, Riley complains that “BlacKkKlansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign” — no harsher insult being imaginable.
So there you have it: the center Left–versus–Left split over whether America’s biggest problems are Trumpian or structural, distilled in a war of words between yesterday’s enfant terrible black director (speaking now for the Trump-phobic but law-enforcement-friendly center Left) and a more frankly Marxist black up-and-comer. That cultural significance doesn’t elevate BlacKkKlansman above what it is — a moderately gripping entertainment weakened by its anti-Trump didacticism. But it makes the dog days of moviegoing a little more politically interesting, and in August that’s all that you can ask for.