Samstag, 1. September 2018

BlacKkKlansman

Warning: This review discusses the closing minutes of the movie.

After three viewings of and numerous discussions with friends about BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's blistering adaptation of black police officer Ron Stallworth's memoir about his 1979 infiltration of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan, I still find myself at a loss for words in the face of this abrasively unsubtle masterpiece.

This is a film that manages to be laser-focused in its message as well as strikingly broad in scope. Under the veneer of procedural comedy, Lee explores the all-encompassing evil of racial oppression – from both interpersonal and structural racism to issues like respectability politics and weaponised whiteness.

The movie's opening minutes already suggest the thematic complexity Lee is wrestling with here. Tellingly, the very first frame is not even his own: it's a scene from Gone with the Wind (1939) – not only a beloved milestone of American cinema but also an unabashed love letter to the Confederacy, a political entity based on little more than the shared desire to keep alive the practice of owning people as property. Lee, it seems, is pointing out – and placing his own work in the context of – U.S. cinema's history of romanticising racism.

This is expanded upon by a second prologue unconnected to Ron Stallworth's remarkable story. Starring Alec Baldwin – Saturday Day Night Live's Donald Trump – as fictional segregationist Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard spouting white-supremacist talking points in a 1950s-style propaganda piece, it reflects on the literal and figurative whiteness of the screen. By the end, Beauregard, having veered off script, misplaced words, and ditched his pseudo-diplomatic demeanour in favour of impassioned, racist fury, stands in front of a screen showing scenes from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) – its tinted images celebrating the KKK playing on his white face. It's among the most semiotically interesting scenes in recent memory – and its uncomfortable staging, daring its audience to laugh at unfiltered, unchallenged bigotry sets the tone for what's to come.

In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes Colorado Springs' first black police officer.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
Even though calling BlacKkKlansman a comedy is similarly problematic as identifying Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) as one, the movie does aim for laughs fairly regularly. The premise makes that nearly inevitable: after signing up for the local chapter of the KKK over the phone, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), Colorado Springs' first black police officer, enlists his colleague, Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to meet his Klan contacts in person under his name.

The absurdity of the situation isn't lost on Lee and his co-writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott. Ron's phone interactions with the largely unsuspecting Klansmen, most notably chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold), terrorist-in-waiting Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), and Grand Wizard/national director David Duke (Topher Grace), are often nothing short of hilarious.

But the movie never lets you forget the seriousness underpinning it all. Felix may seem ridiculous when he's scratching his forehead with his gun and is asking Flip whether his penis is "circumstanced" – but he is still a rabid ethnonationalist who entertains his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) by fantasising about ethnic cleansing and raising his arm for a Hitler salute. His antisemitism prompts Flip to start thinking about his Jewish heritage.

Ron teams up with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
David Duke, meanwhile, may be a Southern caricature who gets his comeuppance in one of the film's most triumphant moments; but Lee makes a point of grimly declaring Duke's project of mainstreaming white nationalism a success: he has the Grand Wizard lead a large group of smartly dressed white people chanting, "America first!" – the slogan around which Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural speech was built.

This is not even mentioning the indiscriminate use of the n-word and other slurs whenever Flip mingles with the Colorado Springs Klansmen. However, BlacKkKlansman still manages to counter the hateful ideology it necessarily gives a platform to in a meaningful way. It achieves that first with the inclusion of Ron's first intelligence assignment – the infiltration of a speech by former Black Panther dignitary Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), also known as Stokely Carmichael.

Lee is at the top of his game as an enigmatic director here, intercutting Ture's rousing antiracist speech about black beauty and black independence with stylised, floating close-ups from the crowd – literally shining the spotlight on black faces in a way that mainstream American cinema has so long refused to do. He follows it up with another loving celebration of black beauty: the camera follows Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), his future girlfriend, onto a crowded dancefloor, where it lingers for a long while over the joyous crowd dancing to "Too Late to Turn Back Now" by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose.

Over the course of the investigation, Ron even makes contact with David Duke (Topher Grace), Grand Wizard of the KKK.
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
Just as these scenes assert black identity and reject the racist assumptions driving white supremacy, a third scene in that vein forcefully pushes back against the equivocation of racism and antiracism – a position favoured by so-called (white) moderates up to this day. As David Duke is formally inducting Flip into the KKK and asking God for more white men in the world, Patrice and the local black student union are hosting an elderly man – played by civil rights icon Harry Belafonte in what may well end up being his final performance – recounting a lynching he witnessed as a young man. The sequence concludes with Duke and his acolytes shouting, "White power!", followed by Belafonte raising a fist and leading his audience in the "Black power!" chant. The argumentative thrust of the parallelism is clear: although the two sentiments sound alike, it is blindingly obvious that the latter one is a natural and necessary reaction to the oppression enacted by the former – if one bothered to actually listen.

These moments elevate BlacKkKlansman above mere historical dramatisation, as they diligently – and with more than a hint of righteous anger – contextualise and talk back to the bigotry that is being portrayed. And yet, Lee consistently refrains from explicitly staging the violence that results from the KKK ideology. Rather, in a final, shocking turn, he lets reality speak for itself.

Ron's job as an undercover detective casts a shadow over his relationship with student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier).
© Universal Pictures International Switzerland
As with the opening, the final minutes of Lee's movie are not of his own making. But instead of Gone with the Wind's Confederate nostalgia, the audience is confronted with footage from the neo-Confederate hellscape of the "Unite the Right" rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017: torch-bearing white nationalists chanting, "White lives matter!" and "Jews will not replace us!"; armed neo-Nazis beating up people; a car driving into a crowd, killing 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer; David Duke cheering on the right-wing violence; Donald Trump claiming that there were "very fine people on both sides."

It's a devastating scream of anguish and anger Lee lets loose on his audience with these final moments – one that left all three audiences I saw BlacKkKlansman with in stunned silence. But the horror is by no means gratuitous. On the contrary, the graphic link to the highly publicised events in Charlottesville feels like the necessary conclusion to this often highly entertaining but at its core deeply disturbing story – a safeguard against cinemagoers shrugging off the violent racism on show as a threat safely confined to the past.

★★★★★

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