Many observers of film, though particularly of Spike Lee, consider that in terms of his filmography, Lee at his angriest represents him at his best. For many, 2015’s Chi-Raq signified a rebirth and return to form, albeit through a most unorthodox avenue, for the legendary Do the Right Thing filmmaker, especially after it being the first nearly universally praised of his joints since 2006’s Inside Man, not to mention joints cut entirely of his own cloth – writing and directing – since 1998’s He Got Game. No doubt, his latest work BlacKkKlansman, “based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t” where Black police detective Ron Stallworth effectively infiltrated a local Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, continues that trend of Lee at his most politically enraged and engaged, but simply saying Lee at his angriest is him at his best perhaps doesn’t entirely cover when he is in top form, or at the very least when he is most fascinating.
It’s been relatively easy to overlook that the last few years have seen Lee at his most experimental, whether it be through storytelling, genre and/or overall aesthetic – especially Chi-Raq. While not every film – excluding his documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall – has been a qualitative success, they’ve all collectively embodied a veteran filmmaker staunchly refusing to shy away from bold moves. Commercial film or not, production interference or not, a remake of Oldboy, with its head-spinning twirls between melodrama and ultraviolence, was always going to raise skeptical eyebrows. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq, respectively adaptations and reinterpretations of classic works, are differing celebrations of film form, and damned if BlacKkKlansman doesn’t belong in the conversation for its own irregular blend of genre – hilarious buddy cop comedy and searing racial commentary – and tone.
Maybe ‘playful’ isn’t a properly fitting descriptor, but it’s safe to say that Lee at his best is him at his most visibly vibrant; at his most formally and topically inquisitive and/or forthright. That may admittedly sound a little boring as it could apply to almost any filmmaker, but Lee will always be one of cinema’s most provocative minds whose very name carries its own mythic weight. Lee lends more than just name recognition to BlacKkKlansman, however, offering not just an of-the-moment reflection of modern race relations and forms of racism, but also more subtle thematic representations of performative ideology and identity, as well as, among others, the historically and culturally enforced dualism inflicted upon Black consciousness as a means of establishing White superiority; that in White eyes, individuals will always be seen as Black first and however else they identify second, whereas such is the other way around for Whites.
We see these ideas more silently express their influence in the narrative while certain sequences loudly make no secret of their intent on holding up a mirror to America in the 2010’s, whether it be John David Washington’s Stallworth scoffing at the idea of a man like David Duke being elected President or Topher Grace’s Duke, in an awkwardly roundabout way without exactly repeating the phrase, opining that America needs to be made great again. Specifically, they are the issues right at the core, consciously or otherwise, of Stallworth and Detective Flip Zimmerman’s (Adam Driver) investigation, and they arguably see more development as thematic subtext than the characters themselves. Though to be fair, ‘development’ even in the case of theme might be laying it on a little strong.
Like Lee’s more upfront moments, these nuanced topics he addresses are equally as significant in their presence, though it can occasionally feel as though their implementation is more as talking points than as something meaningfully conjoined with either the narrative itself or each protagonist’s arc. Admittedly, it may feel that way because nearly every character’s arc in this film, including Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s, remains fairly flat throughout, creating the illusion of nothing going on beneath the surface. No character goes through the film’s 135-minute having greatly changed when coming out the other side, and maybe that’s partially the point as it especially condemns the ever-presence of white supremacy and the institutional and cultural ignorance towards its continued significance as a threatening force and ideology.
In truth, many of the ideas BlacKkKlansman gives testament to don’t need much effect from characters and narrative or excavation beyond the emotions they immediately penetrate to resonate with great power – those two on-the-nose moments described above aren’t in the final cut for no reason at all. They are self-evident to all who care to listen to and internalize them, and frustratingly the opposite to all who will not. Stallworth and Laura Harrier’s Patrice debate the qualitative value of various blaxploitation films, and on the flip side, there’s Klan members watching The Birth of a Nation as a tool of white supremacist thought empowerment, all the while juxtaposed with scenes that illustrate the good and ill done by powerful voices and figures performing highly differing forms of posture and charisma – see: Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and Jerome Turner’s rousing addresses to the Colorado College Black Student Union, and Duke’s personable charm toward his followers.
More than anything, that provides greater and more immediately understandable weight to Zimmerman’s physical performance of a white supremacist as well as Stallworth’s vocal mimicry of one than depth of character can as quickly pronounce, not just because such is easy to accomplish because of a collectively understood imagining of how a white supremacist acts and talks thanks to various media, but also because of how easy it is for the opposite – hiding racist tendencies and performing tolerance – to be true. This is a biographical work, after all, so what does character depth, especially in a story this intentionally contained, mean anyway? At a certain point, you realize that whatever genre concoction aesthetic dressing Lee has going on around these protagonists characterizes, on a potential, unconscious meta level, an argument against much of the story proper; that entertainment sometimes unintentionally devaluse the threat its particular nefarious persons pose by presenting them as easily defeated, and how can you defeat something that doesn’t always hide in plain sight?
However loosely the narrative flows, or how jarringly some scenes follow one another based upon Lee’s chosen storytelling style and facets like Terence Blanchard’s score dictating the tone, the film isn’t just an expression of how black lives matter, but also of how films and what each one says matter. Whatever formal rules Lee breaks for the sake of his purpose with this project are mere necessary casualties as he makes one hell of an impassioned cautionary tale, and though some may find it somewhat unwieldy, it’s one of his most gripping movies in ages. And with a swiftly sobering and sudden ending that lets no one off the hook, BlacKkKlansman shows Lee at his most deliberate and unapologetic.