Note: this review contains some details of the plot that may be considered “spoilers.”
When I went to see Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, last month, I had thought it was one of the best pieces of absurdist cultural commentary I had seen, even considering Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” Including Spike Lee’s newest, BlacKkKlansman, we now have three pieces of art that provide a stark exposition of the racist nature of American power.
BlacKkKlansman, currently playing at FilmScene, is a comedy, at least largely, but one in which the historical coda moved me (and other members of the audience) to tears. That Lee’s newest film echoes Riley’s themes both augurs and exemplifies the response of American artists as they continue to wrestle with the aftermath of the 2016 election.
Rather than Riley’s futural speculation, Lee anchors his film in historical flashpoints: Segments of Birth of A Nation (1915) play as part of a white power celebration in 1978 in a film released on the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. While both Sorry to Bother You and this film play with plot devices of “white voice” as important to selling manufactured truth, Lee’s movie reveals why such absurdist logic is no laughing matter. The Aryan voices that espouse racist rhetoric throughout the movie, beginning with Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) and continuing on through conversations and radio speeches, are shown to have power even over those who would subvert through parody.
The movie’s logical core is folded into its center, in a conversation between Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at a nearby college in Colorado Springs whom he meets while undercover during a Kwame Ture (aka Stokley Carmichael) speech. Their discussion — aside from choices between Shaft and Superfly — centers on what it means to be black in America. One element of the conversation involves a question of power: whether it is possible to disarm power by working within a system, or whether it is necessary to stand removed from corrupt systems to undermine them entirely.
Later in the movie, Lee intensifies this question by juxtaposing chants for white power (led by David Duke (Topher Grace)) and black power (led by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte)). The chant for white power reflects the truth that America was founded by white men, for white men (the movie nicely contrasts how women are treated in the black power vs. the white power movements), while the chant for black power comes in response to a description of mob violence and the torture of a black man. Given the current state of affairs, Lee focuses on revealing, not resolving, this longstanding dichotomy.
If there is an alternative suggested by the movie, it involves dancing, singing and laughter — the joy of a true community grounded in love and compassion rather than hate. The lonely David Duke, depicted with a ticking clock that echoes that of the police chief, seems unable to laugh. One could not picture him dancing or singing. The racist existence attains power at the price of its humanity: winning, perhaps, may ultimately prove to be the losing bet.
A second permutation of the movie’s logical core occurs when Patrice asks Ron about DuBois and the question of double consciousness. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois defines this as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The plot of the movie involves multiple presentations of this work, not only that of Stallworth, but also the work of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew who plays the role of “white” Ron Stallworth when meeting with representatives of the KKK.
Complicating this for me, as a white man, was seeing white men depicted through a black lens that revealed the amused contempt, pity and acute terror that emerges as the KKK remains violent and terrifying in an attempt to see themselves as powerful heroes. I have no problems with finding white men as the punch line of a joke: that humans have a reason to fear me in my whiteness was what troubled me most, followed only by the fact that my brief experience of double consciousness is how most Americans — women and minorities — have to live their daily lives.
These sentiments of “white double consciousness” are foregrounded in the failure of the KKK’s major plot, a scene that simultaneously shows the self-destructive qualities of the hierarchical violence espoused by hate groups that thrive on ignorance, and how justice can, occasionally, be meted out through a combination of karma and courage. As was true with I, Tonya, the self-deluded idiocy of white men remains in the realm of the real. In this case, the movie cannot be a farce for two reasons. First, Lee cannot caricature the true believers in white power, whose ignorance and fear are prominently and proudly displayed in 2018 America. Second, the racist structure on which America was grounded does allow even the most inept white male characters to maintain power over the minorities they oppress.
Ron Stallworth as hero succeeds versus some of the racist power structures that he confronts (with the help of white allies), with the same kind of comedic overtones present when white supremacist characters are bamboozled by their “inferiors” at all points. These parts of the movie validate Stallworth’s claim that good can be done by working within the system.
Lee doesn’t have to make the larger point — history does it for him. Stallworth not only loses the girl (whose life he saved) for being complicit in an unjust power structure, but also his investigation is suppressed: He is ordered to destroy all evidence that it was undertaken at all. Because it was “intelligence” work, no arrests are made. He won a battle, laughing with his victory, but it was one that white power could afford to lose.
Lee packs the movie’s emotional core into its final minutes with a sudden flash-forward to 40 years later. The slogans echoed by the KKK members, allusions to “America First” and “Make America Great Again,” are placed near the need to refer to the KKK as “the organization” and “the invisible empire.” David Duke discusses the need to implement racist policies instead of enacting racist spectacles, a strategy whose ongoing success is revealed locally in questions of Iowa City housing. The coda of the movie, which includes footage from the Unite the Right rally debacle and Trump’s claim that there were “very fine people on both sides,” was profoundly emotional in a complicated way that will take time for me to unravel.
Part of the ending’s power, I think, is how it moves from comedy to tragedy by showing the unbelievable nature of reality: The fictions of Birth of a Nation have become the daily truth that tangles up the uneducated who promote a racist agenda and that traumatizes those who are marked by it. Neither lone nor collective actions to rectify the problem seem functional, much less ethical, but the only other option — to do nothing — is worse.