At the Movies

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.