Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on the timid BlacKkKlans­man

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Where Spike Lee’s films usu­ally brim with pas­sion and in­tel­lect, his por­trayal of black ac­tivism and racism in BlacKkKlans­man be­comes more slap­stick than sin­is­ter, writes

Chris­tos Tsi­olkas.

There is a piv­otal se­quence in Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlans­man, when an el­derly civil rights ac­tivist, played by Harry Be­la­fonte, is in­vited to speak at a meet­ing of a Black Lib­er­a­tion group. We are in early

1970s Colorado Springs and the young mil­i­tants are silent, and many of them be­gin to cry, as the oc­to­ge­nar­ian vividly de­scribes his dis­tress and ter­ror when as a young boy he wit­nessed the mob mur­der of a black man. The lynch­ing oc­curred not long af­ter the re­lease of D.W. Grif­fith’s The Birth of a Na­tion, the early silent clas­sic that laid the foun­da­tion of cine­matic lan­guage but which also por­trayed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan through heroic and ro­man­tic im­agery. Lee cuts be­tween the old man’s elo­quent tes­ti­mony and bois­ter­ous scenes of a Klan meet­ing in the same city. The Klans­men are watching Grif­fith’s film, fall­ing about laugh­ing at the racist de­pic­tion of the re­cently lib­er­ated slaves as drunk­ards and fools, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally cheer­ing as the white-hooded KKK ride into save a white woman from black rapists.

This scene is cen­tral to BlacKkKlans­man be­cause as much as the film is os­ten­si­bly a drama­ti­sa­tion of a true story, of an African–Amer­i­can un­der­cover cop, Ron Stall­worth, who in­fil­trated the Colorado Springs chap­ter of the KKK, it is also a film about rep­re­sen­ta­tion and race, about how such rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters and how rep­re­sen­ta­tion has real con­se­quences and ef­fects. In its best mo­ments, the film is as much es­say as it is nar­ra­tive drama or com­edy. A Black Pan­ther gives a riv­et­ing speech on the racist aes­thet­ics of beauty. While we lis­ten to his ora­tion, black faces in the au­di­ence emerge from the shad­ows, their sur­fac­ing claim­ing and as­sert­ing their grace. In an­other scene, a het­ero­sex­ual cou­ple dis­cuss the con­tested mean­ings of the he­roes and hero­ines of blax­ploita­tion cin­ema, and as they ar­gue, im­ages from films such as Shaft, Coffy and Cleopa­tra Jones dom­i­nate the screen. There is an exciting in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and provo­ca­tion in such se­quences. But, un­for­tu­nately, they don’t form the core of the film.

The ex­e­cu­tion of the in­ter­cut­ting of the Be­la­fonte mono­logue with the al­most slap­stick de­pic­tion of the Klan points to a key fail­ing of this film. We un­der­stand what Lee is at­tempt­ing – just as Grif­fith’s film car­i­ca­tured the eman­ci­pated slaves as buf­foons, Lee is do­ing the same with the Klans­men. But the res­o­nance is no way com­men­su­rate for us as con­tem­po­rary view­ers. I was in my late teens when I first saw The Birth of a Na­tion, at a re­vival at an art-house cin­ema, and I still re­call the shock I ex­pe­ri­enced at the loath­some de­pic­tion of the African– Amer­i­cans, my vis­ceral dis­gust at the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the hooded Klan. There is no equiv­a­lent scan­dal in watching the Klan be­ing roused when they watch Grif­fith’s film. We al­ready know the KKK to be de­gen­er­ate, to be ob­scene. So in­stead of greater il­lu­mi­na­tion, the edit­ing un­der­mines the power of Be­la­fonte’s speech. In this se­quence, and through­out BlacKkKlans­man, it is as if

Lee doesn’t trust the in­tel­li­gence of his au­di­ence. He keeps dumb­ing down ev­ery­thing for us.

Lee is one of four scriptwrit­ers on the film, which is based on Stall­worth’s mem­oir, Black Klans­man. The screen­play is pro­fi­cient, but no bet­ter than that, and the film is at its weak­est when it plays as a straight­for­ward po­lice pro­ce­dural. John David Wash­ing­ton is Stall­worth, and though he isn’t a par­tic­u­larly charis­matic ac­tor, he is gen­er­ous, and that al­lows for some lovely comic in­ter­play both in his scenes with Adam Driver, who plays a Jewish cop who goes un­der­cover with him, and also with Laura Har­rier, who plays Pa­trice, a stu­dent mil­i­tant with whom Stall­worth falls in love. But what is miss­ing from this film is the fierce in­tel­lec­tual au­thor­ity that is cen­tral to Lee’s best work, whether based on his own scripts or in col­lab­o­ra­tions with oth­ers. In his most vi­tal films, he shat­ters academic dis­tinc­tions be­tween form and con­tent. It is as if you can see him work­ing out his ideas, his ob­ses­sions and his doubts as he shoots. His tech­nique is truly eclec­tic and de­pen­dent on the ma­te­rial; it’s his in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal pas­sion that brings unity to his work. It’s there in Do the Right Thing, Mal­colm X and Bam­boo­zled when he is tak­ing on the legacy of racism in the United States, but it is also true for films such as She’s Gotta Have It and Girl 6 where he is in­ter­ro­gat­ing the com­plex­i­ties of het­ero­sex­ual de­sire, and cin­ema’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of gen­der. And it’s there in his ex­plo­rations of New York City, again in Do the Right Thing but also in Sum­mer of Sam and 25th Hour, where he is try­ing to make sense of the mul­ti­cul­tural en­ergy and con­cur­rent racial ten­sions of this most iconic of migrant cities. When he is work­ing with a script that means some­thing to him, with ideas that an­i­mate him, his films are daz­zlingly alive, and I come out of them in a sweat. Not ev­ery­thing is re­solved and we as an au­di­ence are left with ques­tions and ar­gu­ments that we need to de­bate im­me­di­ately over a cof­fee or a drink. When he is at his best, he’s bloody thrilling.

I didn’t raise a sweat dur­ing BlacKkKlans­man.

The direc­tion is coldly ef­fi­cient, and the plot­ting and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion are per­func­tory. The film is in part a homage to ex­ploita­tion cin­ema but the script lacks the dan­ger­ous com­edy that a Tarantino, for ex­am­ple, can bring to such genre ex­plo­rations. And I sus­pect Lee doesn’t share his fan boy rev­er­ence. The over­whelm­ing prob­lem is in the stu­pe­fy­ing id­iocy of the KKK as rep­re­sented in this film. What gets lost is any sense of dan­ger. Even their racism lacks men­ace. The only ac­tor play­ing a Klans­man that evinces any com­plex­ity is Ryan Eg­gold, but his char­ac­ter is un­der-writ­ten and be­comes less cen­tral as the film ap­proaches its cli­max. It’s a very fine per­for­mance, a small mir­a­cle in fact, cre­at­ing a real hu­man from such pal­try writ­ing.

Given the nar­row and unimag­i­na­tive nar­ra­tive struc­ture of the film, it is not nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem that the Klans­men are mere car­i­ca­tures and that the racism is so clown­ish and un­threat­en­ing. But at just over two hours run­ning time BlacKkKlans­man over­stays its wel­come. I found my­self frus­trated ev­ery time we re­turned to the bungling an­tics of the KKK, and I be­came bored of the largely list­less scenes in the cop sta­tion. Some of Lee’s finest work has been in doc­u­men­tary and

I would have much pre­ferred a film that ex­am­ined the re­la­tion­ship of an ear­lier black ac­tivism to con­tem­po­rary anti-racism strug­gles, the con­nec­tions and dis­so­nances be­tween the Black Pan­thers and Black Lives Mat­ter, for ex­am­ple. Or an es­say-style film that took on the chal­lenge of what it means for an African–Amer­i­can film­maker to work within an art form and na­tional cin­ema that has as its foun­da­tional works such racist films as The Birth of a Na­tion. The film opens with an ex­cerpt from the equally racist Gone with the Wind, to this day still glo­ri­fied by Hol­ly­wood as the ne plus ul­tra of pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment. Lee clearly wants us to be pro­voked and chal­lenged by such in­ter­ven­tions and jux­ta­po­si­tions, but the ques­tions are raised and then left un­de­vel­oped. We keep re­turn­ing to the ba­nal­ity of the Klan ver­sus the cops, a sto­ry­line that doesn’t have much more so­phis­ti­ca­tion than an episode of The Itchy & Scratchy Show.

The di­gres­sions into ques­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the ar­gu­ments about black rad­i­cal­ism are the most po­tent scenes in the film. How­ever, un­like Lee’s best work, these scenes are never in­te­grated into the story. He’s be­ing fear­ful here, not trust­ing that a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence will en­gage with the non-lin­ear and the ex­plo­rative. The fear­ful­ness is also in how he re­solves the ten­sion of Stall­worth be­ing a cop and how this is a deal-breaker for Pa­trice, that she can­not coun­te­nance a re­la­tion­ship with a cop. That con­flict, of course, speaks to the re­al­ity of both his­toric and con­tem­po­rary fis­sures within US black rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. The res­o­lu­tion is both un­be­liev­able and silly, and does no jus­tice to Har­rier’s


fine, com­mit­ted per­for­mance. It also un­der­mines the com­plex­ity of the pol­i­tics. Those fi­nal scenes be­tween Pa­trice and Stall­worth are some of Lee’s worst work.

BlacKkKlans­man has a pro­logue and epi­logue that frame the film we are watching as a com­men­tary on the Trump elec­tion and the rise of iden­ti­tar­ian pol­i­tics. The coda is par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing, with Lee gain­ing per­mis­sion to use footage of a young woman, Heather Heyer, who was killed by the driver of the car that mowed down anti-racist pro­test­ers at the Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville last year. No mat­ter how emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing these im­ages are, the truth is that BlacKkKlans­man hasn’t earnt this end­ing. Spike Lee knows film and he knows the his­tory of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the his­tory of pro­pa­ganda. This is the first of his works in which I felt he was talk­ing down to us as an au­di­ence. Heyer’s death doesn’t de­serve to be a coda to

• such a timid and unin­spir­ing film.

CHRIS­TOS TSI­OLKAS is the au­thor of The Slap and Bar­racuda. Heis The Satur­day Paper’s filmcritic.

BlacKkKlans­man stars (above, from left) Adam Driver andJohn David Wash­ing­ton, and (fac­ing page) To­pher Grace.

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