In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

At the MoviesMichael Wood
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018
At the Movies

‘BlacKkKlansman’

Michael Wood

Spike Lee​ , as befits a film school graduate, is a master of montage. His cuts and juxtapositions often say more than his dialogue does, perhaps more than any dialogue could. This is especially marked in BlacKkKlansman, which has been widely hailed as Lee’s return to form after a spell in the movie wilderness.

The film opens with a shot of a railway yard littered with bodies, wounded, dead and dying. A woman crosses the screen from right to left, and the camera pulls back higher and higher, until the whole screen looks like a tapestry made of those many bodies. A Confederate flag flutters at the left of the image. After the opening shot the film shifts away from colour, and we see Alec Baldwin practising a lecture with film clips. He keeps fluffing his lines, but the racism is clear enough: Jews and Negroes are taking over the world, and the natural supremacy of whites is scorned everywhere. Then we move back into colour and see some lofty shots of the Rocky Mountains: pure scenery, it seems, until we close in on a sign at the entrance to a town – Colorado Springs, a place that is about to hire its first black police officer.

The pictured times move from the 19th century to the 1950s to the 1970s. We may not have recognised the first shot as coming from Gone with the Wind, but we’ll certainly have picked up the presentation of the American South and the Civil War. As for the connections among the three scenes, we’re still waiting for the film to start and can’t really work on them. They are already working on us, though, and tangled bits of history and mythology hang in the air: spectacular but romantic defeat, self-congratulating hatred, the West, integration, much more.

The film ends on a flag too: the flag of the United States, upside down, at first in colour, then frozen in black and shades of grey. Before that we have seen a discussion between the aforementioned black police officer and his girlfriend. She hopes he is going to leave the force but he isn’t. They hear a noise and move down a corridor. Both are holding guns. To be precise, they don’t move, they stand still, their guns pointed at us, and the corridor seems to recede behind them. Then we see the source of the noise: a very tall cross burning outside, with eight or ten masked and hooded figures standing round it holding torches. Quite beautiful, if we think of the sight just as an image. Then the film leaves the 1970s and cuts to last year, and documentary footage of the Charlottesville riots, where white supremacists marched wielding Nazi flags, and others protested. One of the supremacists drove a car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Donald Trump magnanimously said there were ‘very fine people on both sides’, and in Lee’s film we see and hear him saying it. And then we get the flag.

Some reviewers have found Lee’s message too obvious, but for me it’s the subject that’s obvious, and urgent, and I’m not sure the film has a message apart from its invitation to think again about many things, especially about the relations between words and action, between ludicrous, nasty ideas, say, and actual harm. The film’s premise, taken from the real-life story told by Ron Stallworth in his 2014 book Black Klansman, is that a black policeman infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. It sounds like the first line of a joke, and one of the guiding thoughts of the book is how ridiculous the story makes the Klan look. Time spent with David Duke ‘really feels comical’. ‘We had been making fools out of the Klan all these months.’

How does the man do the infiltrating? In whiteface? Is he a very pale policeman, adept at passing? These are the wrong questions, as it happens, although questions about disguise and identity are everywhere in the film. When do you become who you are taken to be? When and how do you assert or hide who you are? Stallworth, played by John David Washington complete with 1970s Afro, infiltrates the Klan on the telephone and with his name; a white colleague using the name does the actual hanging out with the bad guys. So ‘black’ here means imagined to be black, and the word in context needs the quotation marks it receives: ‘Ron Stallworth, official card-carrying “black” member of the Ku Klux Klan’.

In the book the white undercover policeman just provides a physical presence: in the film he has a major role. He is played by Adam Driver, he takes real risks, is constantly on the point of being found out, and he is Jewish. He says he had never thought of himself as particularly Jewish before, and certainly not as non-white. Now that his job requires him to pretend he is not Jewish he wonders whether he has been passing all along. ‘I think about it all the time.’

Lee and his writers, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, take the biographical events of the book and turn them into something like a parable. Stallworth’s first assignment was a different undercover job, the cover in this case being his Afro: he attended an event at which Stokely Carmichael (now renamed Kwame Ture) was speaking, to assess the dangers to law and order in Colorado Springs. The job that takes up the rest of the book is the infiltration of the Klan. Stallworth the writer gets the irony of the switch, indeed he has set it up. But for Lee the two scenes ask to be seen as caught up in real dialogue, not just the whimsy of history. Carmichael and the Klan both talk a lot about guns and the need to use them, about anger and power and revenge. They talk differently, and their contexts have very little in common. But the resemblance matters. And are they both just talking? Do we make special allowances if we think the rhetoric is just rhetoric? Are we tempted to believe that what’s idiotic can’t do damage, or that what seems justified to us must do good?

These questions come to a head in the film’s set-piece, an elaborate display of cross-cutting between an induction ceremony for the Klan, complete with David Duke at his unctuous, all-American best, and a gathering of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, where Harry Belafonte tells a tale of torture and lynching in the post-bellum South. And at one point, in fine art-film style, the soundtrack of one scene floats over the other, replacing the realistically appropriate noises. I don’t know what to make of the unrefusable parallel, I only know we are looking at histories that can’t be shared and can’t really be separated – as in the opening and closing sequences. Lee more than anyone knows that cross-cutting in film is associated with D.W. Griffith, and here, as indeed in Stallworth’s book, the Klan watches The Birth of a Nation with the eagerness other social groups devote to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps one of the points of Lee’s film is that no clan can claim it.

The tone of the film adds to this effect. Its finest moments are comic rather than satirical or topical. Two white policemen learn to talk like black men, a black man talks like a supposed white man, with the clear implication that talk is a matter of culture not race. The black policeman gets himself photographed hugging two Klansmen, one on either side, the record of a jovial togetherness that doesn’t exist. When Adam Driver is tested by the Klan for his Jewishness a horribly pointed exchange occurs. The Klansman says the Holocaust never happened, and we expect Driver to agree, with whatever conviction he can muster. He says no, it did happen and it was a great idea: got rid of all those Jews.

Even the violent climax of the film, where a bomb goes off and three ugly bad guys trigger their own execution by mistake – the bomb wasn’t where they thought it was – comes off as a comedy of errors. There are forms of comedy that are not funny – that don’t make us laugh, as Flaubert said. But then the forms speak to our bewilderment, to everything we cannot master. They may suggest too that mastery is not exactly what we need.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.