The righteous anger of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is all dressed up with nowhere to go

The thing with movies “about racism” is that racism is such a sprawling, leviathan of a topic that a movie “about racism” can really be just about anything. I’ve seen three movies “about racism” by Black filmmakers this summer, each slotting into a different genre, and each of them came at the topic of racism from a completely different angle. Sorry to Bother You was heightened, surreal satire with a bizarre, almost sci-fi edge, which took a hard swing at capitalism and the commodification and dehumanization of the working class, while Blindspotting was a gritty, grounded urban drama which took slices of a variety of complex social issues facing Black communities and put them under a microscope.

And now we have BlacKkKlansman, an angry ’70s-set semi-biographical buddy cop pseudo-comedy that approaches its topic in the broadest possible way, tackling America’s unique festering scab of bigotry and hate head-on: the Ku Klux Klan.

LtR: Spike Lee directs Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

Director Spike Lee comes at his subject matter with a sledgehammer, not a scalpel, bashing the audience over the head with a tidal wave of racial slurs and hate speech that remains constant throughout the movie’s 2-hour-plus runtime (the film opens with Alec Baldwin, in a pointedly meta bit of casting, as a white supremacist recording a toxic, hate-filled PSA delivered in calm, soothing tones, and closes with real-life footage of chanting white supremacists at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, which ended in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer).

This approach achieves its purpose — the audience is meant to find the constant barrage of slurs and violent rhetoric both agitating and wearying, an open wound being constantly abraded with salt — but also makes it impossible to ever fully relax into the film, despite its jokes. Lee’s subject matter is hideously ugly, but instead of cringing away from it, he shines a spotlight on it, forcing everyone in his audience — the militant, the complacent, and the apathetic alike — to acknowledge it as the grotesque abomination that it is. Lee intended for this film to function as a wake-up call for America, and on that level, it mostly succeeds, blaring out its message like an alarm clock with its volume cranked up to eleven.

But for me, in a year when other films have also managed to successfully display the hideousness of racism, while simultaneously examining its pervasive and systemic nature in our society with nuance and intentionality, I’m not sure Lee’s broad-strokes approach entirely works here. His point is clear — the Klan is evil and everything they preach is bad, but they’re also walking among us as coworkers, neighbors, and elected officials, to this day — but BlacKkKlansman fails to acknowledge any sort of spectrum in how racism manifests in our society outside of the extremes of the Klan. While it flirts with the some of the nuance of racial issues — code switching, racial profiling, the inherent privilege of “passing” for white — for the most part, it sidesteps any sort of true interrogation of these issues. Characters are either racist, or not. They are either good, or evil. Heroes, or villains.

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

This isn’t to say that the performances are bad. Quite the contrary — John David Washington delivers a competent (if slightly less conflicted than I would have liked) performance as Ron Stallworth, the real-life Black cop who infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK over the phone in the 1970s; Topher Grace plays KKK Grand Wizard David Duke with a creepily perfect balance of “aw, shucks” charm and insidious, seething hate; Laura Harrier imbues student activist Patrice Dumas (an amalgam of several real female leaders within the Black Panther movement) with a fiery passion for her cause that is both convicting and deeply sympathetic; and Adam Driver brings a grounded authenticity to the fictional Flip Zimmerman, the secularly Jewish cop who has to double as the white face of “Ron Stallworth” for in-person meetings with the KKK (the real Stallworth’s white partner was never identified, and was not Jewish). As a whole, the cast gives their all to this story, and Driver in particular plays out so much behind his eyes that you come away from the film with the sense that you know much more about him than is actually revealed in the script.

The problem is that, despite excellent performances across the board, the actors simply aren’t provided with material they can truly sink their teeth into. BlacKkKlansman is all crispy skin and very little meat, constantly shouting while saying very little. It’s entertaining, for sure, as well as undeniably, righteously angry, but once the end credits rolled and the mental dust settled, I came away feeling still hungry.

Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

When evaluating art, it’s important to acknowledge and critique it for what it is, and not what we wanted it to be. Just because a film doesn’t meet my wishes or expectations doesn’t mean that it’s not accomplishing what it set out to do. By definition, a film with the Klan as its villains is going to be more extreme in its approach than a film about, say, gentrification and recidivism within a small community. So when I say that BlacKkKlansman doesn’t fully succeed in meeting its goals, it’s not because the Klan was too broad a target, or that I wish Lee had narrowed his vision to allow for more of a deep dive approach.

But in a film that takes great pains to draw clear parallels between the Klan of 1972 and the America of today, not just with the Charlottesville footage at the end of the film, but in multiple conversations sprinkled throughout the narrative (the most on-the-nose being one in which two characters discuss whether Americans would ever elect a white supremacist as President), it seems a significant missed opportunity that BlacKkKlansman never really commits itself to addressing the systemic nature of racism, or how people who would never consciously associate with the Klan can still unwittingly find themselves parroting some of their talking points. Lee has gone on the record as saying that he hopes BlacKkKlansman will function as a call to arms for Americans, but the only action item the film seems to advocate is “don’t be a blatant white supremacist,” which, hopefully, is a stance most people (and especially the self-selecting group voluntarily seeing this movie) can already get behind.

Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

As Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson says in her review:

if the movie aims to make complacent white people feel uncomfortable about their role in the current American turmoil, it fails spectacularly. The KKK members are, to a one, obviously terrible people, but they’re also just really pathetic. They say “circumstanced” when they mean “circumcised.” They tell extremely dumb jokes. They harbor delusions of grandeur that are in painfully comical contrast to their reality. They’re misogynistic and pompous and stupid.
Later, in the same review, she goes on to say:

There was a great opportunity for BlacKkKlansman to unsettle those in its audience who are cinephiles, as well as more casual moviegoers — the film is more accessible than many of Lee’s more recent offerings — by reminding them that it’s not just obviously racist movies with obviously racist aims that are at fault. There’s a host of reasons that images are powerful, but when we participate in them uncritically, they can cause real damage to real lives. A film that traffics in depiction of stereotypes contains the rich possibility of exploring that with its audience, showing how they, too, are culpable.

Instead, the film settles for taking pot shots at Trump, whom everyone seeing the movie likely already finds odious and dangerous, and at the KKK, which you’d have to be totally oblivious to disregard in 2018. It’s not wrong. It’s just so obvious that it leaves room for a ponderously predictable net effect. BlacKkKlansman reinforces what we’re already angry about. And it makes us feel glad that we, at least, see through the pathetic lies.

Now, this is a white critic assessing the film’s impact on white audiences, and it’s important to note (as Wilkinson does in her review) that how the film plays to Black audiences is an entirely different discussion. It’s also necessary to acknowledge that critics, as a whole, seem to love BlacKkKlansman, boosting the film to an impressive 97% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, although it also seems noteworthy that the opinions represented on RT are overwhelmingly those of white, male critics.

Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

In the few reviews I’ve been able to find from Black critics, their assessment seems to be similar to Wilkinson’s. Miriam Bale writes in her review for W Magazine that BlacKkKlansman “seems one-note and superficial, like a Saturday Night Live sketch, or more accurately like something from Key and Peele.” She goes on to say:

Of course, even Lee’s best films are uneven, often a sign of their powerful ambiguity. But unlike Bamboozled or even his more recent Chi-Raq, this film had none of their shocking truths or formal energy and inventiveness. This film, instead, is two hours of a cartoonish ’70s style (much of it reminded me of the Owen Wilson remake of Starsky & Hutch—not a compliment).

Similarly, in her account of her Cannes experience for IndieWire, Jacqueline Coley writes, “I found myself in the awkward position of being … just a little disappointed? The bones for what I wanted were there, but in his haste to beat us down with a message, Spike left little energy or care for tightening the story.” She still liked the movie overall, calling it Lee’s best film since Inside Man, but speculated that “maybe the film is made more for white liberals than black people.”

Which brings me back around to Lee’s original intentions for this film. Personally, as someone who is neither Black nor white, I couldn’t quite figure out who this movie was intended to reach (and based on his statement that he hopes that this film will inspire Americans to vote, he definitely intended to reach someone). I can’t imagine that Black audiences need to be told that the messaging of the Ku Klux Klan poses a credible threat to their personal safety — this is not new information, and hasn’t been for over a century — but white audiences will likely find so many comfortable proxies within the non-Klan cast that none but the most extreme far-right supporters (who likely aren’t seeing this movie anyway) will find anything personally convicting here.

Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Photo credit: Focus Features

“Racism is bad, so don’t be a racist,” BlacKkKlansman seems to say. The message isn’t wrong; it’s merely easy, requiring very little work or introspection on the part of its audience. A racist cop is flushed out of his department in a coordinated effort by his non-racist, white coworkers. Members of the KKK working in government are targeted by a noble, white FBI agent. Throughout the film, white police officers are shown, along with Stallworth, snickering and eye-rolling at the blatant racism displayed by various members of the Klan, clearly finding them ridiculous, and their hateful sentiments unfathomable.

A more challenging message might have been “racism is bad, so how are you complicit?” BlacKkKlansman presents two choices for its white audiences: scathing indictment, or complete absolution. While it comes closest to interrogating the complicity of “woke” white folks in Stallworth’s white Police Chief, who toes the line between microaggressions and outright discrimination for most of the movie, by the end of the film, the potential impact of that character had been handwaved away in a triumphant scene in which he gets to side with Stallworth to arrest a real racist.

Implying, of course, that the more subtle racism subscribed to by the Chief wasn’t, actually, that big a deal.

I enjoyed BlacKkKlansman for what it was — a well-acted riff on the blaxploitation procedurals of the ’70s, and a scathing condemnation of racism in modern-day America — but I couldn’t help wishing that it was much, much more. Not all films have a responsibility to provoke their audience to action, but for a film like BlacKkKlansman, where the director has said on multiple occasions that he wants to evoke a tangible response from filmgoers, and which takes pains to draw a direct, bold line between the KKK in 1972 and events in America today, it seems fair to ask why it sidestepped the notion that racism isn’t simply confined to the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, or that when average people can point to the Klan and say, “at least I’m not like them,” that we’re shrugging off our own personal burden of responsibility.

Instead, despite its anger, despite its righteousness, despite its excellent performances and jarring, incendiary tone, BlacKkKlansman gives its audience an out, allowing us to ally ourselves with the “good guys,” so we can comfortably condemn the “bad guys.” And while some movies can succeed in this purely black and white space, BlacKkKlansman — a film which is, quite literally, about the dangers inherent in drawing a solid line between black and white — could’ve used a lot more gray.

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