As a rule, Spike Lee’s best films come in three registers: the fiery and rhapsodic poetry of a Baptist minister (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chi-Raq), a self-conscious, ostensibly oneiric cool (25th Hour) that sometimes belies a deep reservoir of anxiety about the weight of its own images for “blackness” (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), and somewhere not so much in the middle as feverishly and flagrantly ricocheting between polar opposites, pinching the unpinchable and thinking of cinema not as a tonal spectrum but a whirligig that shuttles us along many often disagreeing moral and modal registers. Lee isn’t as irreconcilably wacky as John Boorman, for Heaven’s sakes. But his best films, and his worst, are somewhat freakishly committed to their own energies, curious about their own tangents, cinema-crazed and hyper-literate at once, and above all essentially (self and socially) disruptive.
Frequently, this sense of disruption is to their detriment. But even at their worst, Lee’s films seldom want for inspiration, and we can certainly trust a Spike Lee joint to either light the building on fire, silently smolder with sustained intensity, or generally make you loopy, severing step A from B and hop-skipping to C in a gleefully personal, argumentative idiom that eschews reason for slantwise verve and often finds its own arrhythmic logic in the latter. Which is why BlacKkKlansman, the first universally appreciated Lee film in at least 15 years, is such a wonky, lopsided achievement, a truly peculiar success and failure in equal measure and often for all the same reasons.
Or for multiple, oppositional reasons, since Lee’s newest film is simultaneously one of his safest and most conspicuously dangerous, at once relatively streamlined/myopic and extremely self-tangential, both insular – completely self-contained to the point of missing allusions and opportunities throughout – and frenetically diffuse, never finding a center. I’ll always appreciate misfires which question the logic of cinematic centers over films which hermetically enclose themselves in a strained internal-logic – Lee’s films, forever bless him, will almost never douse their own internal fires in order to approximate a water-logged Oscar biopic – but I for one cannot tell if BlacKkKlansman needs to be longer, shorter, slackened, tensed, edited-down, or edited-up, whatever that might be. It’s messy, in other words, but I suspect its messiness is too clean for its own good.
One thing is for sure: it is edited, and mischievously so. The film is ostensibly the story of Colorado Springs’ first black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) and his infiltration of the local KKK, up to and including inviting David Duke (Topher Grace) to his induction ceremony, or the induction ceremony of a composite “Ron Stallworth” filled by the real Stallworth on the phone and Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in person. But, as a narrative, it’s an undeniably promiscuous, totally soggy construction, at once rushing past important events and stopping to take in the minutiae of a scene. It links moments haphazardly, often to the point of relying on narratively discombobulating ellipsis that suggests a filmmaker who may be feverishly infatuated with film history but not beholden to its conventions. Nor its limits; Lee structures his film as though elusively stitching together an essay out of ideas and concepts rather than narrative beats and moments. At its best, BlacKkKlansman totally implodes the bourgeois moorings of liberal biopic narrative cinema, devouring and expelling that genre’s time-worn emphasis on editing which undergirds a worldview focused on individual accumulation and success.
In its defining moments, BlacKkKlansman’s editing exposes the film’s ideas on cinema with not only extraordinary conviction but an extremely probing consciousness and a sense of maniacal glee. Sure to be the film’s signature sequence, a viewing of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation intercut with a monologue about the horrors of the Lost Cause that infamous film valorizes, goes well beyond merely deconstructing Griffith’s film at a formal level. At minimum, it collides a collection of contradictions, clarifying at once the power of Birth of a Nation’s monumentally forward-thinking editing scheme, lambasting and excoriating the astonishing backward-looking politics for which the film applied that editing scheme, galvanizing cinema’s inimitable capacity for self-critique, and exposing cinema as a phenomenal moment-to-moment poetry rather than simply a document of a past reality. Simultaneously a celebration and disarticulation of American cinema’s foundational temporal scheme, an immanent critique from within the style itself, this pas de deux of races, imaginations, and moral frameworks is destined – almost too self-consciously so – to be anointed in the upper echelons of Lee’s cinematic molotovs.
At the same time, I’m actually more inclined to defend the more obviously “broken” editing from Barry Alexander Brown, the moments where the film is less conspicuously mobilizing its editing toward any clarifiably polemical ends, any clear bravura purposes. Throughout, BlacKkKlansman is distinctly off, constructing scenes out of bent and jagged thematic and narrative-adjacent pieces. Certainly, BlacKkKlansman is devoutly a narrative film, but its formal willpower in its showiest moments only belie the subtle manipulation of editing elsewhere in the film, its quiet but demonstrative disinterest in the conventional continuity editing rhythms which Birth of a Nation – and, implicitly, bourgeois narrative cinema – rest on in serving the illusion of objectivity and tethering cinematic competence to clearly-delineated narrative arcs rooted in stories of personal accumulation and achievement.
BlacKkKlansman is wonderfully inelegant, in other words, and totally disruptive to spatial and temporal rhythms of “reality” cinema and tend to underscore pat, hopelessly domesticated liberal biopics and bourgeois individualist achievement-focused stories, simultaneously championing heroic self-achievement and cinema’s ability to unmediatedly recover historical reality. Comparatively, Lee’s film is flagrantly constructed, a devil-may-care slice of rhetoric, with even Lee’s parodic inversion of the “true story” motif that opens the movie both mocking and endorsing this film’s relationship to lived-reality. Throughout, the film mobilizes Lee’s frequent and sometimes film-breaking tonal schizophrenia for provocative purposes, marshaling – although not nearly as well as Sorry to Bother You – filmmaker Haile Gerima’s famous claim that black cinema should “journey imperfectly”. In this case, and in Gerima’s, imperfectly means inviting the audience’s subjectivity, a film questioning itself, breaking itself at the joints, disarticulating its own truths rather than replicating the illusory stylistic perfection and carefully varnished storytelling, tonal harmony, and audio-visual synchrony of bourgeois narrative cinema.
While “perfect” films tend to propagate self-enclosed, objective worlds, BlacKkKlansman explores its essayistic textures to self-consciously stress-test visual reality in service of Lee’s argument and thereby use images of the past as they seldom are in cinema: not as documentarian windows into definable, pre-existent truths but as generative constructs, poetic montages being actively birthed in the film’s then-present. This is even truer in an earlier moment where Lee abstracts a clandestine speech by Kwame Ture, nee Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), and relishes in the glistening elegance of black beauty while superimposing characters’ countenances into a literal collage of black faces operating at once in harmony and as distinction particulars, a potentially-revolutionary constellation of cross-purposes and identities tentatively united.
In this scene, the film emphasizes, above all, faces as images and externals, a stylistic maneuver which reflects an awareness of imagery, on the weight pressed on black people to be image-consciousness. But the scene also radiates Lee’s awareness – much like the collective organizations he is depicting – of the poetry of human bodies restaged and reimagined out of their normative registers. In his anti-realist stylistic gambits, his will to superimpose faces over each other and exercise his artistic discretion, Lee is providing an alternative to any claim that artistic “realism” is the only counter-narrative or corrective against a history of regressive depictions of blackness. He reminds us that reality is a fluxional, mediated constellation of possibilities and that cinema is an art exhibition as well as a document, and, fittingly and as a correlative, that race is not some innate truth but a constellation of mutable images and externals as well. Lee is not simply replacing one static image of reality with another. He’s manipulating reality to his liking, exposing the capacity for play which has historically undergirded and warped race for progressive and regressive ends.
Fittingly then, Lee’s film is essentially a bricolage. Or rather, an essay, somewhat more meta-textual and ideological than we tend to think of narrative cinema, both to its benefit and detriment. The film plays, albeit less overtly than Sorry to Bother You, with a modernistic interruption of the linear equation of signifier and signified. It shoots depth charges into the assumption that there is anything intrinsically black or white about a person, that Ron Stallworth is in essence black or white, that race is a fixed essential.
At the same time, and most curiously, Lee is so astonishingly image-bound with BlacKkKlansman that he is almost entirely unable to refract these images internally, or to consider, in more than the most perfunctory ways, the manner in which racial fluidity and the curlicues of identity trouble and problematize one’s internal consciousness as well as one’s external image. Somewhat shockingly, in fact, BlacKkKlansman is uniquely unable to question any aspect of Stallworth’s consciousness, although I suspect less because it is incompetent than because Lee’s largely external, essayistic register is more interested in characters as ideas and social forces than people. Partially, this psychological superficiality is appreciated. Too many biopics encrypt depth as a tendency to universalize and psychologize, situating themselves as the recovery of their protagonists’ personal consciousness in-full. Paradoxically, they universalize as they particularize, suggesting in their formulaic subscription to conventional narratives of parental issues and psychological “features” that all people are pretty much the same, devoured of culture and social-historical specificity, that characters are all subject to a universal human nature which plays out in a film’s particular pick of a set of psychological features their protagonist fails to exhibit or must overcome a deficiency of. Lee’s film, and its absence of psychology, rebukes this tendency, emphasizing socio-historical externals like race and class, but it doesn’t ever fold these social-historical conditions back into the internal, seeing how they refract and transmute consciousness and shape psychology.
Necessarily though, this means that the film’s exploration of external masking – of black people playing white, and of white people playing black playing white – is largely divorced from any exposure of double-consciousness, or any suggestion that, for instance, Stallworth is erasing his own “black” identity in dawning the vocal countenance of a KKK member. Likewise, while Washington’s oppressively calibrated line delivery evokes the weight of a black man who is forced to manicure every conversation for fear of being labeled too black for the police force or America, his somewhat blank textures would obviously be perfect for many more subversive films which Lee has not actually made. Washington’s “white”-sounding (for lack of a better word) normal voice could be a weapon for Lee if he was looking to read Stallworth himself as a racial traitor, or rather, a man who has turned himself into a curated machine for white America, a figure devoid of, or unwilling to expose, his psychological complexity by virtue of his own decision to appeal to middle-ground white American institutions in service of “the greater good”. Which is to say: Lee seems to dance around, and then totally avoid, the question of Stallworth’s soul, his mind, his consciousness, exploring him uncritically (or with no formal perspective at all) as a man who is blindly committed to the belief that change can happen from within the system. This is a politically and cinematically dubious proposition, but for Lee it seems merely an assumption.
This is, at best, odd for a filmmaker who has for so long been labeled a provocateur, and it is a crucial blind spot in his film, as is the curious omission of any psychology at all. Comparatively, Chi-Raq was more flagrantly disinterested in psychological interiority but much, much more overtly iconic in its application of character, much more overtly essayistic and disinterested in seeing its characters as people. In other words, what seemed like a pointed decision or a perspective in Chi-Raq rather feels like a mistake or a failure here, not to mention a political myopia insofar as this film is far too committed to its Manichean mapping of KKK members as bumpkins and “radicals” while celebrating the police department’s ability to self-cleanse and pacify its own institutional anxieties. (The police are gifted the positive valences of democracy, while the KKK are afforded the negative ones). In this sense, Lee is mostly committed to an institutional script which demonizes conservative radicals so as to iron-clad the conservative status quo, demonstrating disdain for the more bellicose oppressors so as to galvanize the clout of the more silent, and thus more pernicious.
Indeed, at times, Lee’s film is surprisingly forthright about its superficiality, existing at a particularly pernicious fork, simultaneously an invigorating study of the thorns of consciousness, a hard-hitting true-crime expose, and a racial sitcom that mines the porous boundaries of identity for mordant laughs. At some point, the viewer has to question whether this tonal and thematic promiscuity is the product of an inspired consciousness scouring the material for every possible textural interpretation or of a mind trying to check every box without fully shading in any. At some points, and at some point, Lee’s messiness distracts from the kinds of thorns and knots he doesn’t pull and tangle. Only rarely does Lee acutely expose the dialectical of internal and external, drawing us toward the narrative’s most obvious themes of racial fluidity and porousness in ways which suggest the masking of one’s identity as a potential threat to the stability of consciousness, folding back in on the self and warping identity in more fundamental, irreconcilable ways. In other words, despite its essential playfulness, Lee always seems sure that there is an essential Stallworth who exists beyond the exterior manipulation of self. He is always in command, and the threats to his being are only ever physical and suspense-oriented, never subjective and existential.
As already mentioned, the film is largely under-committed to some of its more ephemeral currents, namely the screenplay’s occasional anxieties about Stallworth’s status as a police officer and his embattled commitment – even his naiveness – about working through “the system” rather than outside it. Lee’s feints toward that seem more perfunctory than committed, and for a film so vigorously interested in delving into the minutiae of ambiguous identity, it refuses to explore many of the dangerously provocative cookie jars into which Lee could stick his hand if he wanted to. There are other lingering but underwoven threads though. For instance, Lee’s film seldom exposes the ironies in its main interracial pairing, and it almost entirely avoids Zimmerman’s consciousness, neither churning the narrative into his own racial awakening nor kindling any potential excitement, rage, anxiety, or fear which burnishes or stymies his relationship to Stallworth, which is bizarrely matter-of-fact and perfunctory throughout. And, as is the case in far too many of Lee’s films, women are only mild counterpoints, potential perspectives which are cut short on their pathway to genuine character-hood.
Which speaks to the film’s wider paradox: it simultaneously widens its perspective and hems itself in, exuding a slippery consciousness but one which doesn’t catalyze its seeming spontaneity into a more fascinatingly messy concoction. It isn’t a mess willing to explore many perspectives and not resolve any of them. Despite its truly galvanizing high points, Klansman is elsewhere only banally illustrative, merely depicting rather than using its images to expose any psychic or social registers. It also often fails to truly mobilize its disobedience to traditional formal idioms, which means that its sense of stylistic play is sometimes only ever stylistic. Lee’s movies are often at their best when threatening irreparability, exposing their seams, and for all its mischievousness, Klansman can be an oddly sedate film.
Admittedly, I do deeply admire this film’s dismissal of the funereal, self-congratulatory attitude of so many self-serious sociopolitical tracts hell-bent on fossilizing their pasts, ultimately sacrificing texture, nuance, and ironic contradiction at the altar of importance. I also admire the film’s desire to not settle into an obvious position as a totemic statue to progress. But Lee’s temerity is not always connected to his temper. While his film is hardly whitewashed, it feels neutered compared to the paint-peeling pungency of his best films: sharp, cutting, fractured-carnival mirrors with their jagged edges pointed at our – and its own – throat(s). When Klansman ultimately culminates in a somewhat banally rousing conclusion which then undercuts itself in a cloying manner, the epilogue feels like a lazy directorial shorthand for self-critique, not a film seriously attempting to puncture its narrative with intimations of self-doubt. The obviousness of the conclusion drives home how specious this film’s mess can be, how it ultimately rouses toward liberal social change without ever actually managing to faze Stallworth’s blank-slate heroism with a sense of tragic cyclicality or narrative flatline. The film never seriously ponders whether Stallworth’s efforts do not buck the trend but merely contribute to a system which assimilates outsiders and severs the most overtly malignant markers of the status quo (the KKK) when they are no longer useful.
(Incidentally, it is also hard to square the “real life” present footage of 2017 at the end, depicting incidents where the police squashed white-racial apologists and black lives’ matter protestors alike, with this film’s endorsement of metered police progressivism).
These aporias are the mark of a misshapen and mismanaged film, which is less bothersome and burdensome to the film than its timidity with its own misshapenness. As with Sorry to Bother You (a better film, simultaneously more cathartically rebellious and revolutionary and more abashed in its refusal of a confident final verdict), Lee’s film exposes the performative caliber of race and is itself-aware about its participation in the medium it criticizes. But I would take the former, or for that matter, Lee’s incendiary comic conundrum essay film Chi-Raq or his ice-cold, mesmeric, truly diaphanous Da Sweet Blood of Jesus from the same year, both of which are better cinema, better meditation, better politics, and better hell-raising.
All of this is to say: when Lee is “on,” his film positively ignites, and his film is “on” often enough that it’s hard to fully dismiss. Certainly, that Birth of a Nation montage positively kills. Speaking to and against the post-WWI apocalyptic rhetoric of so many European films which dwell on the four horsemen – and the sense of destruction and moral rebirth associated with apocalypse – the 1915 Birth of the Nation famously concludes by galvanizing its (pale) horses and their equally pale riders to rush across the screen, scouring the land to replenish it by ravaging it of the moral degradation of black bodies. They compress and traverse space and control and warp time on the screen in service of shaping time and space in their diegetic, and our lived, world: they turn the clock back to a Manichean vision of justified, vigorous, moral whites and degraded, immoral African-Americans.
Released in another time of crisis, Lee completely obliterates that façade of rebirth, that temporal passage of linear cinema and linear, teleological time. His scene featuring Birth of a Nation is wonderfully dialogic. But the rest of his film ultimately concludes with its own telos of liberal progress, its own vision of systems which scrub themselves clean of social complicity on the path to a better tomorrow. It is undeniably superior to Birth’s essentially backward, conservative motion, but this final linearity is its own limit, especially when the film seems not to charge toward linear motion, building-up to it, but sacrifice its initial skepticism, its willingness to entertain many, sometimes conflicting possibilities, in service of getting there. If its ultimate movements are conclusive, they also suggest a compromise, ultimately motioning toward what one must sacrifice on the path toward solution.