It certainly begins in an attention-grabbing fashion, opening with a clip from Gone With the Wind that segues into a white nationalist recruitment video, with Alec Baldwin (a frequent Donald Trump impersonator, of course) raging against the black and Jewish encroachment besmirching his proud white America. As Baldwin spits invective, images from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are projected onto the screen behind him. Griffith’s film becomes a key motif in BlacKkKlansman; this was Hollywood’s ultimate racist epic, a film that led to the rebirth of the KKK, and Lee frequently references it while also subverting its famous cross-cutting technique. Lee also references Tarzan in a speech given by Kwame Ture, to talk about the ways in which black audiences were historically forced to empathise with white heroes, and by extension to hate themselves. Spike Lee’s films have always been keenly aware of America’s past cultural sins, and BlacKkKlansman is attempting to engage with that legacy, while simultaneously telling a story rooted in the 1970s and commenting on America as it stands, or falls, in 2018.
That range of perspectives and layers of meaning isn’t unusual for a Spike Lee film – a sense of overreach, of a film pulling in multiple directions at once, is often what makes his work feel so energetic and alive – but here they are allied to a central narrative that fails in a series of ways. When we first meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) he is starting work at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and he is the only black man in the precinct. He is warned that he may face hostility and resistance, but his path from the records room to undercover work is smooth, with only one overtly racist cop apparently embodying the entirety of the force’s prejudices. This is a truly baffling decision on the part of Lee and his four co-writers, with this one bad cop getting the whole police department off the hook. The scene in which he gets his comeuppance is laughable, sitcom-level nonsense. Just what is Lee playing at here?
The simplicity of BlacKkKlansman and its broad, sketchy characterisations becomes more glaring the deeper Stallworth and his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) get into the Klan. The two lead actors give fine performances, but they are given nothing to play. How does Stallworth feel as a black man, sitting on the phone with David Duke (Topher Grace) and attacking his own race and saying “God bless white America”? He generally seems flippant and chilled, as if it’s water off a duck’s back. Similarly, Zimmerman is a Jewish man making anti-Semitic remarks when he’s in the Klan’s company, and he has to spout racial epithets while his black partner listens in; in one instance he even says it to his face. How does he feel about this? Does it take any psychological toll? The agnostic Zimmerman is given the most intriguing line in the film: “I never used to think about it,” he says of his identity. “Now I think about it all the time.” But the film doesn’t follow this thread and go deeper than that. We have a black man pretending to be white and a Jewish man pretending to be a Gentile, with both men expressing hatred of their own people, and the tension and complexity of this situation is never explored.
But it’s quite clear that Lee isn’t interested in these people as characters, he’s after a bigger story. The Ku Klux Klan exist in BlacKkKlansman as representatives for the white supremacy movement in the United States that has culminated in the Trump administration, and he draws the parallels bluntly and repeatedly. He puts familiar phrases into their mouths – there is talk of “making America great again” and chants of “America first!” – and characters discuss the idea that a man like David Duke may one day ascend to the highest office in the land, a line that provoked knowing chuckles from the viewers I saw the film with. Knowing chuckles isn’t what you sign up for with a Spike Lee film, though, and only in its final moments does it really grab audiences by the throat. The natural endpoint of the KKK/Trump equivalence that Lee has developed throughout the film is the footage from the Nazi march in Charlotesville in August 2017, the murder of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s notorious claim that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which is the footage he uses to bring the film to a close. The images are shocking, enraging and upsetting, and they’re guaranteed to have people leaving the cinema in a sombre mood, but they feel strangely disconnected to what’s gone before.
BlacKkKlansman is still a Spike Lee movie. It still has a “sheeeeeee-it!” from Isiah Whitlock Jr. and a trademark dolly shot, and it still has standout scenes that feel like the kind of moments only this director can conjure. I loved the close-ups on the audience during Kwame Ture's address, their faces spotlit in a beatific light, and a late monologue by Harry Belafonte carries a raw emotional force – like the ending, it’s a moment in which Lee confronts the viewer with the stark reality of racial hatred. But these powerful episodes only serve to highlight how sketchy, cartoonish and banal the rest of the film feels. BlacKkKlansman is consciously a work aimed at appealing to a mass audience, but this attempt to make a more mainstream film seems to have dulled the blade of a director who has done far more audacious work recently in a bunch of films that nobody cared about. A Spike Lee-directed studio release is inevitably going to be more interesting than a regular mainstream movie, but after the immediate impact of the film’s ending had dissipated, I couldn't help wondering what else we were meant to take from it.