BlacKKKlansman Spike Lee (USA; 2018) John David Washington
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 4th Sept 2018; Ticket: £9.75
Comic book radical chic
Spike Lee can point to the unflinching ethical core of BlacKkKlansman (BKK) to justify the specific way in which he has marshalled his various resources to tell his story and to play out his message.
BKK is characterised by an unwavering moral code, but cinematically it is sometimes a bit of a mess with its promiscuous admix of imagery from different source material.
And if ends justify means, then that’s Ok. But the problem is that once you take this stance, there is a certain moral jeopardy in disregarding the legitimacy of the means employed to achieve a desired outcome.
Lee’s movie assembles BKK from a wide range of different sources: old Hollywood movie clips (in particular from Gritthith’s Birth of a Nation, though the film opens with a clip form Gone with the Wind), his own reconstructions, contemporary news footage and a scripted drama based on Ron’s Stallworth’s memoire ‘Black Klansman’. Ron Stallworth’s story is the spine of the film. In Lee’s hands Stallworth’s story is given the comic book make-over. ‘Black Klansman’ becomes a cinematic romp with pantomime heroes and villains. The villains in particular are depicted as stock in trade psychopathic retards, endowed with the malice of Trump (a comic book President if ever is) and the physical attributes of zombies. All of which works fine at its own parodic level and permits Lee’s script to develop its thematic proposition: that there is a socially active rabid racism underlying US society and social relations that you can trace consistently through the 20th to the 21st century. This racist strata does not go away. A phenomenon that under adverse conditions becomes a substrata, withdraws and tones down signs of its visibility; but in the ‘right’ (sic) conditions it erupts into the streets, parading its full regalia.
BKK as drama is realised through a racist themed pantomime, that deals with actual issues but stylistically anchors them in form of a hyper real parody. The film is shot and edited to resemble the drawn elements of a comic book in which situations and characters are demarcated in bold outline.
By and large the comic book style of the drama plays out true. But there are key areas in the movie which are built on the interweave of Lee’s drama and his documentary material. And it is the collision between the hyper drama and actuality that raises questions. At the dramatic heart of BKK there is a parallel edit sequence: we see the Klan ritually affirming their racist values cross cut with Harry Belafonte relating explicitly to a group of politically conscious Black Students, the terrible obscene racist killing of a young black man. The two track edit struggles because of the disparate nature of the two intercut sections. The cross cutting is not so much between two simultaneous events but between two worlds of different originatory material: comic book and primary source. These worlds collide, not lending a greater intensity to the film in their juxtaposition, but rather the each trespassing on each other, detracting from each other. Each scene in its own right as a continuous event would have been strong. Which is not to say that they lack power, but that there is a net loss from Lee’s script/editing decision to intercut the material.
Likewise the use of the Charlottesville clips. BKK moves out of the Ron Stallworth drama into actuality. Lee’s last shot of Ron and Patrice uses a strange corridor of time SFX, a clunky device to emphasise continuity and directly connect Lee’s protagonists to today’s explosive re-emergence of political street racism, lent savage legitimacy by the Trump presidency. In its final sequence the movie makes a shift from the comic book to the actual. OK, Haneka does something similar in Cache (Hidden) but his drama is not pitched in a Comic Book key but rather in a subdued neo-realist key. The shift from Comic coda to actual coda of documented footage risks stylistic contamination that works to devalue the actual. Lee’s response to this might well be that today’s viewer, in particular the black audience is so sophisticated at reading images no matter what, that this observation is null. Still I think that doc clips and footage offer opportunities and risks, and there are risks.
Lee’s film is a realisation of current state of American politics. It’s clear moral purpose is to link black experience to the continuities of the psychic dark realm of American fear. Lee nevertheless needs to remember that there is also a moral responsibility in using primary sources. Cavalier use carries its own dangers.