Movement we need to build
Review of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, on general release
Spike Lee is a consummate film maker and his latest work, BlacKkKlansman - based on Ron Stallworth’s book Black Klansman - is brisk, precise and dramatic. It is a product of people who know how to put outspoken politics into a film with acuity, suspense and pace. It is no mean movie - and no black and white fable either.
In the 1970s Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was a rookie detective in the Colorado police. After being patronised and insulted by the people working next to him, he one day got the idea to ring the local racist hood-wearers of the Ku Klux Klan. Though black himself, he managed to pull off the trick of persuading his contact that he was just another ‘true’ American mainly by the many epithets he directed at others. They arranged to meet.
Ron’s immediate superiors, though wary at first, eventually approve of his plan to infiltrate “the Organisation” (as their members discreetly call it) - though not, of course, by going along personally. Instead, one of his detective colleagues, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), was to stand in as the paleface Ron.
There have been quite a few portrayals of African-American heroes over recent years - Panther directed by Mario Van Peebles, Ali and Selma, as well as Hidden figures and Lee’s own Malcolm X. But BkK goes further, giving us more ideological detail about the Klan than ever before. It makes some quite clever allusions to the alt right and one Donald Trump, as well as replaying footage of the US president. This does not make Trump a hood-wearer, but it shows to what extent he is a sort of doorman for the growing movement of ‘white men resurgence’. The film’s satirical target is not just a few cross-burners in Colorado.
Lee is a subversive film-maker, especially of the same old stories. BkK should, of course, be a trendy, role-reversal movie, where a female cop (as in The spy who dumped me) goes undercover to bust the Klan. She does not necessarily try to join, but she gives some thick rednecks the runaround, plus a few karate kicks (cheer!), and in the process overcomes the prejudice of her white, male boss. The system is shown to work, if you aspire hard enough. BkK departs from that kind of product in various ways.
One of the film’s major motifs is disguise and the slipperiness of identity. In another kind of film black and white are always obvious - distinct in culture and emotional weight. But Ron, of course, fools the organisation on the phone, as Flip does in person. They are convincing enough to impersonate the other. One Klan member, Felix (the intense Jasper Pääkkönen), has his suspicions about the newcomer, but the rest of the members dismiss these. While at an anti-racist meeting Ron also meets a militant organiser, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who asks him directly more than once whether he is “a pig”. She, however, bases her challenge on what he argues. You are what you say politically.
Lee’s directing gives the spoken word added dimension. When, at a Black Power meeting, the historic character, Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael and played by Corey Hawkins), makes a speech about black being beautiful - classic rhetoric of the time - the camera does not just show us the Leader giving us the Truth. Lee crossfades in different faces of the audience. They shine with the morale that they are having boosted (or however else you want to interpret their expressions). Lee asks the audience to evaluate what is happening. Meanwhile, also serving image and plot is Terence Blanchard’s score - funky guitar and strings, a touch of the contemporary ‘Philly sound’ - but made now for a thriller. The lighting and colour are used to evoke attitudes and emphasise details needed for comprehension. One shiny red VW drives through the story, unobtrusively preparing for a few seconds that will assist the climax.
In one sequence we are back to a contrast between words and picture, when Ron races to stop an act of violence and police officers pin him to the tarmac, not listening to what he says about being undercover. The irony would not be so sharp if he was a private citizen or a passionate activist.
Of course, other details from the period are not explored, like FBI infiltration or police shootings. The FBI is included, but very briefly, as is sexist police harassment, which features in one scene. ‘Political’ film-makers, however, should not be expected to deal with everything. For example, Battleship Potemkin does not even mention British foreign policy on Russia.
Many of Lee’s films could be said to ask a question, echoing soul singer Timmy Thomas: why can’t we live together? But in films like Do the right thing (1989), Jungle fever (1991) and Girl 6 (1996) he has never just shown pathetic black people beaten down by bigwigs and lower class bigots. He has never suggested that human solidarity is impossible, but neither has his work shown it as simple and easy. BkK does indeed show Ron at one moment receiving cheers and accolades from all his detective colleagues in the station: ‘The system works!’ Nevertheless, his team also receives orders from above to lay off the Klan.
One sub-plot which you do not usually get in more binary movies about ‘race’ is the relationship between Ron and his alter ego, Flip. This skates over little of the tensions there might be between a black and a Jewish cop. They make a good team, even though during the case each man is put at risk and has to get out of it on his own. Nevertheless, at other points they both save each other’s lives. They might make a good TV series. Of the actors, Washington’s wry performance as Ron and Driver’s self-questioning role as Flip deliver some uncomfortable observations as well as moving moments.
This reviewer for one prefers mixed-cast dramas - tensions between colleagues, or comrades, are as dramatically interesting as beating The Man, if not more so. The film is well-paced and entertaining, with humour and wit throughout - humour being the term Lee preferred to call the tone rather than ‘comedy’, by which he probably means Jim Carrey slapstick.
In the end where does the film (and Lee) stand on the politics of intersectionality raised in ‘Dead end of intersectionality’ (Weekly Worker August 2)? There Mike Macnair wrote that “our aim is universal emancipation, not ‘equality of opportunity’ or an anti-discriminatory capitalism”. Lee is not identity politics.The very premise of this film relies on Ron being able to ‘pass’ in jive-speak and straight talk. He has no inherent nature that means he cannot convince the Klan, while they would recognise that he is not one of their kind.
In fact to be American is to be ‘intersectional’ - everyone is mixed and with their own contradictions. There are millionaires of colour, while in some states Trump relied on more middle-to-upper class votes than working class support of any kind. In fact, the term ‘intersectionality’ was introduced as an approach where in 1984 an African-American writer like ‘bell hooks’ (Gloria Jean Watkins) could oppose the notion of women as a homogenous category. It was a debate within feminism. The term made room for concepts of ‘race’ and class, and the discussion of how the legacy of uneven development under capitalism affects the status and morale of different groups.
But, yes, Lee is a left Democrat - anti-discriminatory, not anti-capitalist. While making Malcolm X, he did indeed take a bit of the merchandising action, though he had been selling ‘X’ clothing in his Brooklyn store for two years before the film’s release. But binary he is not - and he has even criticised shadeism (or colorism) among the black community: that is, where certain brethren speak negatively of those with a darker skin tone. He does not go in for easy identifications or happy endings.
Increasingly, most people in the world share a common condition of experiencing the wealth gap. We are in the same boat, though not necessarily the same cabins. Here we see the team around Ron - black/white, uniformed/non-uniformed, middle class/not - come together, succeed and then dissolve. We get the pleasures that seductive commercial film gives us - triumph over setback, determined fellow feeling, moments of connection. Yet what future will Ron face, having fulfilled his superhero role? Could it involve a link up with Patrice - that is, including the women too? Meantime, the team around Ron Stallworth presents us with a common and comprehensive image of the movement we need to build, together.