“based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”
Blurring the lines between humour and horror, Spike Lee illustrates the stranger than fiction story of Ron Stallworth’s Black Klansman. A biographical tale set in 1970’s Colorado Springs, charting the rise of Ron Stallworth as Colorado’s Springs’ first African-American detective, from lowly beginnings within the police force to then infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. A return to form for Spike Lee, following such films such as Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus (Kermode, 2018). Films which seemed to chart a decline for Lee. His ability to blend the humor and horror with such ease, while creating a poignant piece of work earned him his first Oscar for adapted screenplay (Nickolai, 2019).
‘Black man infiltrates KKK.’ I said, ‘Is it real?’ ‘It is.’ ‘I’m in.’’”
– Spike Lee
(Sean McKittrick speaking to ScreenDaily)
Jordan Peele’s elevator-style pitch of the film, condenses so much of the tale into so few words, epitomizing the ludicrous nature of the story. (Salisbury, 2019). It seems too absurd to be true, but it’s still nonetheless a shocking story of racism in America and the influence of the far-right represented by the Klu Klux Klan and the MAGA movement. What I aim to explore within this piece is the way in which Spike Lee subverts meanings and enforces messages. By combining certain images, meanings and time to create a bigger picture of America as we currently know it, as well as subvert what we understand about some of the biggest pop culture juggernauts to come out of America.
One of the main recurring threads of the story and the film is the nature of duality. The idea of that America belongs on two sides of a coin, being intrinsically linked, yet being polar opposites. A lot of what Spike Lee achieved within the film capitalizes on these themes. Humour goes hand in hand with the horrified gasps.
Both Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) reflect two fronts of the proposed Ron Stallworth to the Klan, Flip is the face, while Ron is the voice of the persona. Through Flip we bare witness to the domesticity of plotting acts of terrorism, in the homely scenes we observe to one of Lee’s most striking achievements with the film, the tonal changes which move and shift like the plates of the earth, changing and forming new terrains, blending horror and humour. Embodied with the scene of Connie begging to be part of the group, while making snacks for the chapter. While Flip is being interrogated for his Jewish heritage by her husband Felix.
It’s this rampant energy, which is maintained throughout ‘BlacKkKlansman’. This film asks us moments in the runtime to look at something, which at first seems fairly innocuous. ‘Gone with the Wind’, during the first moments of viewing seems fairly innocuous, we see wounded vets as far as the eye can see, but as soon as the confederate flag appears, the meaning changes. This is what makes the film so riveting in some of its depiction of popular culture, the way in which it so easily unravels what we understand about some of the defining cinematic moments of the 20th Century and allows us to see these moments in a new context.
The mixing of the time frames is an incredibly effective method for when it comes to splitting the narrative up. Typified when Harry Belafonte recalls his story of witnessing Jessie Washington’s lynching cut between the Flip’s initiation into the Klan. (Vary, 2018) While Belafonte recalls the horrific story of how over 15,000 people came to watch and participate in his death sentence, Flip’s ceremony continues with the viewing of the notorious “Birth of a Nation”, while rapturous applause and cheering happen when the blackface character is caught, to Belafonte’s continuation of his story of how they cheered for Jesse Washington’s death.
Duality and its presence are prevalent during the film, typifying what we understand about cinema and editing. Image one plus image two equals a third meaning. Typified with the chants of “white power” and “black power” combining to create “all power to all people”, a message in line thematically with what Spike Lee wants to say during the film. Duality represents more than just the power of two, but what they achieve together in terms of meaning and added complexity to the given media. Lee’s film does this often to great effect, leaving us feeling a myriad of ways when confronted by a certain moment within the film.
The Conclusion We’re Left With
While we live in times of massive division and political-economic disparity, cinema, in general, has been a great custodian of distraction, a means of diverting energy from the day to day realization of what we live in, to maybe see an example of what could be. For a moment BlackKklansman seems to follow in this same vein. Attempting to tie up everything with a hopeful outlook. The corrupt police officer in the force is taken down, Ron berates Grand Wizard David Duke and Ron and his partner Patrice move in together
Spike Lee does something left field, he almost tries to pretend that life is okay, only moments later from this sweet feeling of positivity, we see Klan members burning a cross. Then we’re taken into the modern-day. Where police officers who have killed African Americans walk away unpunished. Ex-Klan members such as David Duke are looked at as a measure of how America feels (Scott, 2018). Trump inevitably looms large over this, showing us his Charlottesville comments, his infamous “blame on both sides,” line; the footage of Heather being killed and the American flag, illustrated such as a way that most of the world hasn’t seen, but ultimately resonates with. Not as a country of innovation, but one of division, represented with the fading black and white flag.
Kermode, M. (2018). BlacKkKlansman review – a blistering return to form for Spike Lee. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/aug/26/blackkklansman-review-spike-lee-blistering-return-to-form. Last accessed 26/12/2019.
Nickolai, N. (2019). Spike Lee Wins His First Competitive Oscar. Available: https://variety.com/2019/film/news/spike-lee-wins-oscar-academy-awards-blackkklansman-1203147948/. Last accessed 26/12/2019.
Salisbury, M. (2019). ‘BlacKkKlansman’ producers on pitching Spike Lee and the film’s lasting impact. Available: https://www.screendaily.com/features/blackkklansman-producers-on-pitching-spike-lee-and-the-films-lasting-impact-/5136976.article. Last accessed 26/12/2019.
Scott, A.O.. (2018). Review: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Journeys Into White America’s Heart of Darkness. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/movies/blackkklansman-review-spike-lee.html?referrer=google_kp. Last accessed 26/12/2019.
Vary, Adam B.. (2018). The Horrifying Lynching At The Center Of “BlacKkKlansman”. Available: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adambvary/blackkklansman-lynching-harry-belafonte-jesse-washington. Last accessed 26/12/2019.
BlacKkKlansman. (2018) [DVD] Directed by Spike Lee. United States: Focus Features [Viewed 09/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. (2014) [DVD] Directed by Spike Lee. United States: Gravitas Ventures [Viewed 1/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Gone With The Wind. (1940) [DVD] Directed by Victor Fleming. United States: Lowe’s Inc [Viewed 03/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Oldboy. (2013) [DVD] Directed by Spike Lee. United States: FilmDistrict [Viewed 08/12/2019]. Available on DVD.