Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Review

Skin in the Game

October 19, 2018Zack Graham

This review appears in our forthcoming Fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to receive a copy in your mailbox.

IN THE FIVE YEARS since the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, black filmmakers have not only used their respective platforms to champion those issues, but have made films that actively examine the ways in which systemic racism has long suppressed and objectified black people in America: Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, and, most recently, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. But one name is glaringly absent from the list—Spike Lee, the director of over 25 feature films, including Do the Right Thing, School Daze, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X, all typically considered required viewing for anyone even loosely affiliated with the black liberation movement.

So what has Lee been up to recently? While he has been a vocal advocate of Black Lives Matter at rallies and in interviews, professionally he’s been busy directing an American remake of a Korean horror film, a couple of TV specials, a basketball video game, and an underwhelming Netflix television adaptation of his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, among other projects. His only feature film in this period worth discussing, Chi-Raq, asserts a vision that flies in the face of everything Black Lives Matter represents, decrying black-on-black gang violence while failing to address the forces of institutional racism that have made Chicago one of the most dangerous cities in the United States.    

But Lee is back, and his most recent film, BlacKkKlansman, which won the prestigious Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of the more compelling films about race in America released since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. BlacKkKlansman is adapted from the memoir of Ron Stallworth (in the film, portrayed by John David Washington, son of Denzel), the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Frustrated with his paper-pushing rookie role, Stallworth convinces the chief to assign him to the investigations division, and ends up infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, he can’t go undercover with the Klan himself, so the chief assigns Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish detective, to play Ron Stallworth in person while Stallworth plays himself over the phone.

Incorporating the vast majority of racial slurs belonging to the English language, the film’s script is two parts hilarious and one part depressing, a balance that at times tips within the same scene. But perhaps BlacKkKlansman’s most special quality is the equal weight it places on the Klan’s antisemitism and racism, which creates tension between Stallworth and Zimmerman, forcing Zimmerman to come to terms with his Jewish identity and his status as a minority in America. Zimmerman’s Jewish heritage was a creative liberty taken by two of the screenwriters, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, for the sake of giving Driver’s character “some sort of personal attachment” to the plot. In order to join the Klan, Zimmerman has to pass a “Jew lie detector test” and narrowly escapes being forced to demonstrate that he is uncircumcised. When Stallworth later asks Zimmerman why he hasn’t bought into the mission on a personal level, Zimmerman says that he wasn’t raised Jewish, wasn’t bar mitzvah’d, and never thought of himself as Jewish. He subsequently admits that after his time undercover with the Klan, being a Jew is “all [he] can think about.”

The dual stress on antisemitism and racism is a critically overlooked facet of the American white supremacist doctrine. Antisemitism is “the movement’s very ideological core,” as Eric Ward of the anti-racist Western States Center has described it, a point underlined by Lee in the opening monologue of the film, in which a white supremacist played by Alec Baldwin blames the “Jewish-controlled puppets on the Supreme Court” for the regrettable Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Zimmerman’s personal grappling with his Jewish identity in the face of antisemitism frames one of BlacKkKlansman’s main assertions: Jews are just as much of a target for white supremacists as blacks are, and therefore should have just as much motivation to fight white supremacy as blacks do.

At the outset of his career, Lee received significant criticism for his depiction of Jewish jazz club owners Josh and Moe Flatbush in Mo’ Better Blues, which provoked a public statement from the Anti-Defamation League and prompted Lee to publish an essay in his own defense. Depictions of Jews in Clockers, Get on the Bus, and 25th Hour improved Lee’s standing in regards to his ability to create deep Jewish characters. But never has the connection between blacks and Jews been made as explicitly in Lee’s work as it is in BlacKkKlansman.

The film is not without its flaws. BlacKkKlansman has four endings, two of which feel ridiculous. A sequence involving the entrapment of a bad cop who admits on tape to sexually assaulting and racially profiling the town’s citizens feels so out of place and happy-go-lucky that it belongs in the realm of Lee’s fantasies, not in the film. And a final phone conversation between Stallworth and David Duke during which Stallworth informs Duke that he is black and slams the phone down triumphantly seems to come from a much lesser film. These are two of many moments that are so absurdist they ring false, even in the context of Spike Lee’s trademark over-the-top filmmaking style.

Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley directly addressed many of these flaws in a three-page essay he posted to Twitter accusing BlacKkKlansman of being the extension of an advertising campaign for which the NYPD’s foundation paid Spike Lee $200,000. In his essay, Riley asserts that the entrapment of the racist cop was “put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism,” and claimed that in reality Ron Stallworth simply sabotaged black radical organizations by “instigating infighting,” inciting “physical altercations,” and even “setting [members] up to get murdered by police.” In short, Riley claims that BlacKkKlansman and the memoir upon which it is based are guilty of revisionist history, and that both works harbor neoliberal, pro-police sympathies.

When asked to respond to Riley’s criticism during an interview with the Times of London, Lee stated that “not all cops are bad,” as though such a fact justifies the historical inaccuracy of the film and the political slant that comes with it. Lee said elsewhere in the interview that he has moved to the Upper East Side from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene because he has children, and that he has made up with Tyler Perry after having accused him of “coonery and buffoonery” for his cartoonish depictions of black people. A younger, more rebellious Lee would have raged at his current complacency. But the truth of the matter is that Lee is an older, established, wealthy filmmaker now, and BlacKkKlansman’s flaws reflect those of their creator.

But these flaws do not undercut the overall success and importance of BlacKkKlansman. The film makes a political statement at a moment in which naked white supremacy has gone mainstream. At a recent Q&A after a screening of BlacKkKlansman in New York, Lee told a story about how Jewish attendees at a screening in Cannes approached him and claimed that they hadn’t known the Ku Klux Klan hated Jews so much. Lee said he replied incredulously, “You were number two on the list!” Today, when the Klan has exchanged white hoods for MAGA hats, crosses for tiki torches, and The Birth of a Nation for Fox News, Lee is imploring us to unify against them, regardless of our place on “the list.” Let’s hope the American public is listening.

Zack Graham is a writer living in New York.