While Black Lives Matter has gained international attention for its focus on racial policies in the United States, it started as – and has always been – an intersectional movement, focused on those demographics – especially women, queer and trans subjects – typically marginalised even by black power collectives. Given that female, queer and trans folk make up the majority of black lives in the United States today, that’s a sizeable percentage of people who had been marginalised, the Black Lives Matter movement holds, from discussions of black pride in one way or another. At its most radical, Black Lives Matter suggests that the fixation of black futurity on the spectacle of the black, heterosexual male voice – the spectacle of black machismo – has actually worked against the interests of the black community at large, brokering a connection with forms of toxic masculinity typically dictated by white culture and communities at the expense of a more inclusive black vision. While one news outlet after another might have rushed to explain Kanye’s affiliation with Trump as an act of eccentric randomness, or misguised integrity, this alliance is perhaps not so surprising from the radical vantage point of Black Lives Matter, which has always insisted that the continuity between the ultra-masculinity trafficked by gangsta rap, and the kinds of ultra-masculinity proffered by white conservative America, means that any serious attempt at a genuinely collective black front must be a benchmark and exemplar of intersectionality.
That position and proposition rubs up against Spike Lee’s filmography in a particularly uncomfortable and even unpalatable way. While Lee’s films have featured no small share of strong black women, the overarching subject matter of his body of work has been black machismo, and the masculine black voice. Sometimes his films steer in the direction of King, sometimes they steer in the direction of Malcolm X, but they always maintain the masculinised voice as the vehicle for social progression and radical change. Conversely, their representative horizon is always, at some level, the possibility of a black future that might exist somewhere beyond this macho voice, or a black future that might be conceived of by women and other subjects who aren’t indebted to that voice, or contoured by it in some way. In an environment where liberatory discourse is increasingly inextricable from Black Lives Matter, that creates a bind in Lee’s cinematic output, making it impossible for him to retain the more radical overtones of his earlier films – or at least the radical aspirations of his earlier films – while remaining enamoured by the same modes of black machismo and auteurism that were responsible for articulating the conditions of possibility of those films in the first place. Over the early 2010s, and as the groundwork for Black Lives Matter was being laid, that saw Lee actually move away from contemporary racial politics in the direction of period drama, in the form of Red Hook Summer, and international cinema, in the form of Oldboy, his reworking of the Golden Palm winning thriller by Chan Wook-Park.
Only in the last couple of years has Lee started to come to terms with Black Lives Matter, and what it means for his filmography. Yet where Chi-Raq was an inquisitive and inconsistent effort to broker his auteurism against a new racial present, BlacKkKlansman is nothing less than a reckoning with his entire voice and filmography, along with the ways in which they might have been complicit with the very forces they once seemed to be opposing. In that sense, BlacKkKlansman perhaps belongs alongside films like Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, since while these three films may all be very different in tone, register and political affiliation, they all represent auteurs coming to terms with the macho voices and machismo that has characterised their auteurism, along with the wider ethical implications of auteurism itself.
For that reason, there are two distinct ways of looking at BlacKkKlansman, which, as the title suggests, is about the infiltration of an African-American police officer into the Ku Klux Klan. The officer in question is Ron Stallworth, played here by John David Washington, who in the late 1970s became the first black officer in Colorado Springs. After being assigned to infiltrate a local rally by Kwame Ture, played by Corey Hawkins, Stallworth finds himself making inroads with the local radical black community, even as he is abruptly shifted to intelligence back at the Colorado Springs station, where he makes a plan to investigate the local Klan chapter. With the help of Detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, he starts to document and follow the leaders of the local chapter as they plan for a terrorist attack, all the while developing a personal connection with Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier, a local radical activist. While Stallworth makes contact with the Klan by phone, Zimmerman joins them in person, and between them they finally manage to gain access to David Duke, played by Topher Grace, who at this point was the Grand Wizard of the Klan and its most senior official. As the operation starts to reach crisis point, the chapter’s terrorist organisations start to focus to Patrice, as Stallworth finds himself forced to make a decision between the radical political action that she advocates and his own instinctive adherence to the badge, and to the masculinised rhetoric of his supervisors and colleagues.
The first way of looking at that scenario is to read it as an apology for black radicalism, and a plea for a more moderate way of looking at societal insitutions, such as the police force, which have a history of putting down black radicalism. Indeed, this is exactly the job with which Stallworth is tasked at the beginning of the film – to monitor and moderate any collective reaction to Kwame Ture – and a role that he more or less internalises as the film proceeds, continually reminding Patrice, in particular, that radicalism is not a realistic option. Adding heft to that particular approach to the film is the fact that Lee significantly sanitised the role of the other police officers in the case, building a vision of black-white collegiality that apparently plays as an utter fantasy to those who were involved with the events at the time. Given that the intersectionality of Black Lives Matter was in part a response to the extent to which racism is entrenched within the American police force – and more immediately prompted by the murder of Trayvon Martin – it’s not hard to see why Lee has been accused of selling out by a generation of younger and woker artists and activists, nor why the film has often seemed to be a critique of Black Lives Matter and a form of passing for white, especially in the wake of films like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You which exemplify a new generational notion of wokeness and sensitivity to systemic exploitation.
There is, however, another way to read BlacKkKlansman, which may have been marketed as an almost Tarantinoesque balls-to-the-wall exercise in blaxploitation, but which is far more sombre, introverted and even elegiac than the promotional campaign would suggest. Moving slower and quieter than everyone around him, Washington’s Stallworth often plays as an inversion of Lee’s more typical alpha males, couched in one mise-en-scene after another that seems to muffle and stifle the black male voice, or else frame it as a period texture, art of a 70s soundscape that seems unbelievably remote from the vantage point fo the present. For the most part, the lighting is dim and dusky too, making white skin stand out as an anomaly, even or especially in those spaces in which which people are dominant, relegating the black community of Colorado Springs to so much dark matter – present everywhere, and contouring everything, but often impossible to discern or articulate within the visual vocabulary of the film as it stands. It is as if Lee had taken the 70s period effect so precious to contemporary cinema and framed it as an absence of black period bodies rather than a presence of white period bodies, even or especially (again) when the screen is cluttered with whiteness. That’s not to say, of course, that Stallworth doesn’t have moments of kinetic convulsion, but that they’re always subsumed back into this more sombre moodiness, submerged into the pastoral woodwinds that score so much of the film.
As BlacKkKlansman proceeds, then, you get the sense that Lee is telling the kind of period drama that would once have worked brilliantly as the vehicle for black auteurist machismo, only for that machismo to be consciously and conspicuously elided from his mise-en-scenes. The only figure we see who comes close to the black masculinity of Lee’s previous protagonists in Kwame Ture, whose speech to the Colorado Springs audience plays in its entirety, and lasts for about fifteen minutes. During this speech, however, Lee gradually abstracts and distends the space of the lecture theatre, moving from Kwame to one superimposed montage of black faces after another, until it feels less like a specific speaking event and more like a hypothesis of black collectivity, a zone of figurative potentiality. The same abstract, dream-like atmosphere continues into the next sequence, in which Stallworth, Patrice and the other black radicals spend the night at a local club, where Lee’s camera intertwines itself with their dancing, heaving bodies until it feels as if we’ve entered the kinds of defiantly ahistorical collectivity so precious to Afrofuturism, and its refusal to conform to the timelines of what white society dictates to be proper humanist progression.
Throughout this brief opening act, then, the black macho voice so precious to Lee is gradually abstracted and jettisoned from Kwame Ture himself, and left to drift, free-floating, above every face in the audience, before finally being deflected and redirected into the collective impetus of the dance floor. That movement – from masculine individualism to collective promiscuity – drives the rest of the film, and ensures that the swagger and cocky attitude of Lee’s previous efforts are quite muted, making for one of the most elusive and sophisticated tonalities in his entire catalogue. While Driver puts in one of the most understated performances of his career, it’s Washington’s part here that really stands out, since while it might be fairly understated on its own terms, it’s positively uncanny in comparison to his father Denzel, who not only embodies the kind of machismo typical of Lee’s universe, but the way in which that machismo has brokered an acceptance of this black subjectibity within the wider and whiter world of cinematic masculinity. Yet because Stallworth speaks to the Klan on the phone, and Driver speaks to them in person, neither character can fully appropriate this shared masculine voice at any one time, meaning that they are never more than the sum of their parts, despite the fact that they are playing the same character, but instead always slightly less than them, as if the convergence of white and black interests on the potency of the macho voice were ultimately detrimental to each.
Part of what makes BlacKkKlansman so powerful is therefore the way in which it suggests a limitation to what black machismo can achieve by itself. That’s especially clear in the depiction of the Klan, which is presented here as the institution par excellence which has managed to inure itself against the possibilities of black masculine activism. Whereas Lee may harken back to earlier incarnations of the Klan, the version we’re presented with in the film is very much the third iteration, which arose during the 1950s and 1960s as a riposte to the Civil Rights Movement, and which was keen to present itself as a viable political option, rather than a fringe group. In other words, it’s the growing respectability of the Klan within late twentieth century America that forms the subject of the film, as we’re presented with an institution that is (apparently) strictly non-violent, and more concerned with white pride than with black subjugation, headed by a Grand Wizard who also refers to himself as a national director, and whose main imperative is to gain as much political traction as possible, rather than resorting to local fearmongering and intimidation. Since it’s a Lee film, there are inevitably a few moments when the Klan is caricatured as a collection of backwards racist hicks, but for the majority of the film it’s eeriest when this rhetoric of white nationalism is divested of overtly fascist and even racist elements, and instead naturalised into everyday discourse. In that respect, Topher Grace is perfectly cast as David Duke, exuding the calm rationality and childlike sense of credulity that makes Duke such an improbable, and yet such a brilliant, spokesman for people anxious that aligning themselves with the Klan might make them fringes, outcasts or abnormal within American daily society.
Throughout BlacKkKlansman, this growing respectability defies any attack from black machismo, partly because this new iteration of the Klan doesn’t pride itself on the kinds of machismo that drove an older KKK demographic – or at least subsumes them more seamlessly into “civilised” discourse. As a result, the visceral kernel of Stallworth’s mission is perpetually displaced and deferred, as if a blaxploitation drama had had all the soulful machismo leaked out of it. While Lee himself was often quite vocal in criticizing gangsta rap as yet another form of blackface, his films nevertheless have trafficked in that same gangsta lexicon more than his criticisms would suggest, and in BlacKkKlansman that process comes full circle, as the very gangsta register that once gave Lee’s films their attitude is now not merely impotent to prevent the infiltration of this new KKK, but so impotent that it almost seems complicit with it. Somewhere along the way, the film often seems to suggest, the gender equity of blaxploitation gave way to the neoliberal gender politics of the gangsta ethos – a neoliberalism that makes it disarmingly easy for Stallworth’s few bursts of machismo to be co-opted by the KKK, just as it’s easy for even the most radical purveyors of black machismo, such as Kanye, to be appropriated by Trump and the forces he represents.
For all those reasons, then, there’s an overwhelming sense of finitude to BlacKkKlansman – a cumulative sense that the masculinised black voice can no longer be a voice for radicalism in itself and by itself. During one of the most harrowing sequences in the film, a veteran activist describes the torture and murder of Jesse Washington to a group of students while David Duke and the local fan chapter watch The Birth of a Nation after a Klan meeting. While connections between cinema and racism are nothing new in Lee’s body of work, there’s a new sense here that the American cinema is so systematically racist than any effort to articulate a macho black auteurism through it is doomed to complicity. Indeed, watching this scene, it’s hard not to see The Birth of a Nation as being equally central to the Klan canon as to the cinematic canon and, by extension, to see the very idea of cinematic mediaton being bound up with Klan ideology. After all, the most foundational and ambitious Klan text was also the first “blockbuster,” as this veteran activist explains, even as that fact precludes him from appropriating the same masculine assertiveness that a Lee speaker might be expected to enact at just this moment. Concomitantly, in the opening scene Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Kennerew Beuregard, a fictionalised white segregationist who initially seems to be narrating a series of key scenes from The Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind, only to gradually move into the frame of the projector and start speaking directly to camera, breaking down all distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic space to suggest that American popular media itself is unthinkable without the fundamental respectability of the Klan, and the ongoing respectability of a slave mentality, even within liberal enclaves.
As a result, BlacKkKlansman is more heistant than any other of Lee’s other films about where to situate its discourse, as well as the claims it might make to its own auteurism. When the revelation of Zimmerman and Stallworth’s shared identity eventually comes, then, it doesn’t produce any sense of catharsis, or transformative recognition, but is instead displaced into an irreverent polaroid that ruptures the period effect with a more contemporary social media inflection. Apart from that missive from the future, and disruption of Lee’s mise-en-scene at the very moment it is supposed to cohere or resolve, most of this self-thwarting auteurism occurs around the figure of Patrice, who appears periodically throughout the narrative to provide Stallworth with radical counsel. Whether he’s trying to domesticate her, or talk down to her, or argue with her, he never really takes her radical gestures on board, especially when it pertains to systemic police racism, or to the kinds of systemic sexism that are hampering the black cause. If anything, it’s the KKK who really recognise her full radicality, saving their most potent terrorist attack for her and her sisters, and leaving Stallworth trapped in a strange and distended zone between white normality and black radicality that results in a surreal penultimate confrontation between all the film’s main players, in which Lee’s sense of space and timing is so disorienting that the self-subsistent masculinity that Stallworth has tried to promulgate has literally no place to call home, leaving Lee’s spatiotemporal scheme with no consistent point of cohesion either.
In these final moments, it becomes clear that Lee’s love of the macho black voice, and of black machismo, is itself a form of passing for white, insofar as it participates in an (ultimately) toxic masculinity whose very hegemony within American culture brands it as white. The more that the film is tempted to lean into that machismo, the more deflated it becomes, producing a figurative bind that Lee, to his credit, confronts in the final moments of the film, poising us at the very limits of his lifeworld rather than trying to traverse or contain them. With the terrorist attack averted, Stallworth and Patrice finally have time to have a proper extended conversation, and she starts by telling him, in no uncertain terms, that she can’t date him now that she knows he’s a policeman, since it defies her radicalist convictions. Once again he tries to reason with her, then he tries to domesticate her and then, finally when, the doorbell rings, he tries to adopt a protective paternalist stance, only for her to get her gun out as well and open the door with him. Yet Lee never shows who’s behind the door, instead jettisoning the image of Stallworth and Patrice and letting it fly, free-floating over the corridor, like some blaxploitation fantasia of radical intersectionality and gender equity whose import has been lost to the present, or at least lost within his own body of work. From there, we shift to a chilling, austere and utterly unironic depiction of a cross burning, before shifting again to an epilogue of actual footage of white separatist rallies in the Trump era, backed up by an endorsement of Trump by Duke himself, in 2016.
Ending a film with this kind of a documentary footage is risky, especially because the graphic violence of some of the images on display here could easily play as cheap, or exploitative, with even a slightly different inflection. However, after a film in which Lee has made his own auteurist voice, and his own fixation with the black auteurist voice, the main focus of his camera, and a film that has ended with such a radical figurative freefall, these now-familiar stock images of white pride rallies take on a different gravity and a different valency. In a fresh way, they appear in intersectional terms, and as protests against intersectionality – aimed against blackness, to be sure, but mobilizing themselves against blackness with a masculinist vocabulary that Lee himself now seems to be questioning his own complicity with. And it is that intersectionality that makes BlacKkKlansman once of the most accomplished films of Lee’s career – certainly his most accomplished film since 25th Hour – as well as one of the most prescient, if also one of the most tentative, efforts to come to term with what is at stake, figuratively, in translating Black Lives Matter to the big screen.