Spike Lee’s film about American racism strips away the clichés, proving that the absurd is possible—and also dangerous.
bY TYLER COATES ~~ There are many moments of levity in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. It continues a tonal balance that has been one Lee’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker; he understands the cinematic medium as both intellectually serious and pure entertainment. The entire premise of BlacKkKlansman is one that’s gleefully played, in a nod to the exploitation films of the 1970s, as absurd and unbelievable. The notion of a black man in 1972 joining the Ku Klux Klan in order to infiltrate it from the inside is comedic and almost to good to be true—even if Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) wrote the tell-all book about his undercover operation himself.
What felt immediately rooted in dire truth, however, was the extreme threat of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In recent years, the Klan—at least until last year’s Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia—has seemed like an antiquated organization. While David Duke (played in the film by Topher Grace) is still around and very much still offering his hateful rhetoric (and support for President Trump), the contemporary Klan has been depicted in popular media as a bunch of useless, moronic rednecks whose ridiculous obsession with pageantry and white supremacist drag borders on embarrassment.
I’m thinking, in particular, of two films from the 21st century that have used the Klan in similarly epic—and ultimately comedic—set pieces. The first is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2000 retelling of The Odyssey that placed the events of Homer’s epic poem in Depression-era Mississippi. Its trio of escaped convicts (led by George Clooney) naturally find their way into a massive Klan rally (equipped with a cross burning, a striking cinematic sight directors love to revisit).
The scene is filmed as a musical number, with the robed Klansmen marching and chanting in unison. It also plays into the film’s Zelig-style narratives, with a Robert Johnson-inspired blues musician coming close to a lynching before he’s saved by our trio of white heroes (who ultimately, and laughably, kill off a larger-than-life John Goodman with the flaming cross). To be honest, everyone in the film comes across as dimwitted, post-Civil War rubes (even if O Brother plays strong homage to the one Southern cultural output deemed worthy of praise: its folk music), but there’s a sense that the stupidity of rural Southerners explains the backwoods racist ideology that the film isolates to its setting—both geographic and era-specific.
Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning Django Unchained, like the Coens’ O Brother, should never be taken as anything remotely close to historical record. The film mixes Blaxploitation themes with a Western revenge narrative, with Tarantino’s ultra-violent tendencies and affinity for irreverent humor, to tell the story of the titular freedman and his white bounty hunter savior who travel across the South to find the former slave’s wife and bring her to freedom. During their trek, they run afoul of a powerful slave owner (as is customary for Antebellum South-set road movies) who calls upon his brothers in the Klan to run the film’s protagonists out of Tennessee.
Like in O Brother, Django‘s Klansmen scene is stunning. And it’s also played entirely for laughs. The bumbling racists with their convenient and familiar Southern drawls are too stupid to pull anything off; they’re too busy bickering with each other about their costumes and their wives’ sewing skills. Meanwhile, the hundreds of torch- and gun-wielding Klansmen are no match for two erstwhile cowboys, who easily vanquish the mob of horse-bound spooks with dramatic flair.
Dee Rees’s 2017 film Mudbound featured Klan imagery in its a third act (and a lynching), a rare example in recent years in which the white extremists were depicted as they really are: a terrorist organization. But for contemporary, prestigious, and white American filmmakers like the the Coens and Tarantino, white supremacy is simply a joke—a cinematic trope as clichéd as the silver-tongued Southern accent that bespeaks a classless and clueless prejudice that seemingly evaporated in the last century. While satire can be an effective form of resistance—laughing at your enemy certainly can diminish their power—treating white supremacy as a joke only proves that, to white filmmakers, racism is not anything to take too seriously simply because it poses no threat to them.
Enter Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which upends the myths of white supremacy on display in the aforementioned movies. Like O Brother and Django, BlacKkKlansman is also a period piece; it takes place 45 years ago, a time that was fashionably different but ideologically similar. The racism on display isn’t exactly funny, not unless you find social discomfort humorous. Instead, it’s so overt and present from the beginning that it borders on the banal; by the time Stallworth’s partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) meets with the Klan members with whom Stallworth has been in contact, it’s extremely jarring to see the tension rise.
Lee’s drama becomes a true crime thriller when Zimmerman ventures, on his own, into the dark underbelly of Colorado Springs—a setting that’s so far from the typical racist hotbeds of the American South that it cannot simply be a narrative coincidence. Lee’s film breaks the rules by placing the most obvious avatars of American white supremacy—the Ku Klux Klan—outside the South’s borders and thousands of miles above sea level. These aren’t Appalachian hillbillies or down-in-the-Delta farmers expressing their hatred for their black neighbors; rather these are men who are over a century and thousands of miles removed from the battlegrounds of the Civil War. Lee refreshingly posits white supremacy as an American problem instead of a Southern one.
And his racist villains aren’t buffoons, either. Sure, there’s a sleepy-eyed drunk who casually points his own pistol at his head when bragging about his plans to shoot black people. Yes, even Topher Grace mines his great TV sitcom awkward charm for his portrayal of the savvy, yet dim, David Duke. But while Duke and his comrades are ultimately goofs, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t let us forget just how dangerous they are—and how the Klansmen use their tactics with different ways to manipulate and terrorize their enemies. The doofus with a gun is still an armed man—one of an army of angry white guys who aim their rifles at images of black children in the woods while dreaming of cleansing the earth of the minorities they see as a threat to their righteous visions of American identity. Duke, too, weaponized his dorky Ned Flanders-style persona to ensure that white supremacy remained normal and harmless.
But Spike Lee doesn’t give us a true happy ending, because the real-life events of the film didn’t put an end to racism in America back in 1972. The film’s opening coincided with the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia; its final scenes—a montage reminiscent of the minstrel images in Lee’s 2000 satire, Bamboozled—show footage of the chaos between the pro-white groups and those protesting their marching. Lee shows us, from multiple angles, the car that drove into the crowd leaving one protester, 20-year-old Heather Heyer, dead.
And the inclusion of President Trump’s comments after the conflict—the infamous remark about “very fine people on both sides”—is hardly overwrought. BlacKkKlansmanshows the double-pronged threat of white supremacy, both the short game and the long con. Stallworth and Zimmerman manage to stop the small-time racists who attempt violence against Colorado Springs’ innocent black residents, but they can’t stop David Duke, a figure who maintained low-level racial rhetoric within the fabric of American society.
Forty-five years ago, it may have seemed improbable that the American public would elect a president who openly expresses white supremacist ideals with such nonchalance rather than behind closed executive office doors; there’s a scene in the film in which the fictional Stallworth expresses his incredulity about that very possibility in a scene in which Lee winks to his audience, offering up a historical gag and a lesson that Trump’s ascendency didn’t come out of nowhere. For Stallworth, Trump would have been as laughable as the contemporary notion of a black cop joining the Ku Klux Klan in the early ’70s.
Yet both of those things have happened, despite how preposterous they may be. BlacKkKlansman reminds us that the absurd is possible, and it’s dangerous, and we can’t simply laugh it off and assume the joke won’t ultimately make history its punchline.