Scalding Hot Takes: BlacKkKlansman
A few weeks back I re-watched Peter Bogdanovich’s 1976 showbiz satire Nickelodeon for my Fractured Mirror column at TCM Backlot on movies about movies. I wanted to see whether a 70s-era Bogdanovich tribute to the early, Wild West days of silent comedy could possibly be as dreadful as its reputation and paltry box-office suggest.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nickelodeon is, for the most part, a charming lark, a giddy goof of a movie filled with loving homages to the pioneering work of folks like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It’s a sleeper full of boyish charm and high-spirited, expertly executed physical comedy but I couldn’t help but mourn the masterpiece that might have been the haughty auteur had his way and shot the whole thing in black and white with Jeff Bridges and John Ritter as his leads instead of Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal may have been a top box-office attraction at the time but he’s as unlikable and cold as Ritter and Bridges were/are lovable and charming.
There are a lot of gorgeously realized, intricately choreographed and executed slapstick set-pieces in the film but nothing in it had as profound an effect on me as a climax in which the film’s motley crew of scallawags, grifters and cockeyed dreamers attend the premiere of a movie so profound, so important and so revolutionary that the mere act of watching it changes them forever. It broadens their horizons. It illustrates what the medium of film is capable of at its most ambitious and audacious.
This kooky gang of makeshift movie-makers exit the movie theater different people than when they entered. They are transformed. Watching this particular movie with an equally enraptured crowd makes them want to become better artists. No, wait, that’s actually under-selling what a transformative experience the premiere is for seemingly everyone involved. It doesn’t make them want to be better artists; it makes them want to be artists in the first place, not just sketchy opportunists on the margins exploiting the freewheeling, ramshackle nature of a motion picture business that was still making up the rules as it went along.
I’m guessing that none of you will be surprised to discover that the movie that changes everyone’s life instantly in Nickelodeon is a silent film widely considered a cinematic and cultural Big Bang that single-handedly elevated movies from a wacky fad to an important American art form: D.W Griffith’s 1915 celebration of the motherfucking Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation.
In a decade where the blaxploitation and black independent film boom were bringing the black experience to the big screen with a boldness and audacity never seen before and adventurous, socially conscious studio films were questioning the very foundations of our society, Bogdanovich was making a silly romp that ends with an uncomplicated celebration of a racist film as a transcendent work of Cinema.
That watching Birth of a Nation inspired audiences to join the Ku Klux Klan and lynch black men does not seem as important to Bogdanovich as the film’s stylistic innovations encouraging hungry filmmakers to aim higher than they ever before.
A screening of Birth of a Nation figures just as prominently in Spike Lee’s incendiary new crowd-pleaser, BlacKkKlansman but, as you might imagine the context is not just different, it’s antithetical. It wasn’t until after I’d seen BlacKkKlansman that I realized how fucked up it is that a Jewish director in 1976 made a film that climaxes with a loving tribute to a feature-length valentine to the rightness and noble fury of the Ku Klux Klan.
White privilege is being able to brush aside Birth of a Nation’s status as a work of hatred and instead focus exclusively on its undeniable cinematic and technological value. Like everyone involved with show-business, Bogdanovich may be Jewish but his real religion is Cinema. For him, Birth of a Nation’s cinematic value is of supreme importance; everything else is secondary.
In BlacKkKlansman, Griffith’s seminal Civil War and Reconstruction epic does not inspire daffy but good-hearted filmmakers to strive to create timeless art, or at least quality motion pictures. No, in Spike Lee’s simultaneously angry and sad new movie, D.W Griffith's century-old game-changer fires up members of the David Duke-led (Topher Grace) Ku Klux Klan to want to commit violent crimes against black people.
The Klansmen do not watch the movie in rapt silence, as a transcendent religious experience. Instead, they see it as a call to action revealing the true history of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, not the watered down, “politically correct” version seen in history books.
Bogdanovich depicts Birth of a Nation as an enduring triumph, as a seminal moment in pop culture history where silent movies came of age and fully realized their incredible potential for telling important stories on an epic scale, not just for making audiences chuckle for a few minutes. For Lee, Birth of a Nation is an enduring tragedy, a siren song of hate, intolerance and anti-black racism that’s held up as one of the most important, culturally relevant and revolutionary films of all time.
Lee is every bit as committed to the Church of Cinema as Paul Bogdanovich, who similarly starred in his breakthrough film, 1968’s Targets. What does it mean to be a proud black man whose artistic Church includes such problematic sacred texts as Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer and Gone With the Wind?
How do you reconcile your love for your country and its institutions with those institutions’ ugly, pervasive history of racism and intolerance, a history that extends to today and even tomorrow?
That’s a dilemma facing both BlacKkKlansman co-writer/director Spike Lee and the film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth (Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, in a star-making turn), a straight-arrow cop who becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s.
Ron is proud to be a police officer and deeply committed to his job even as he’s achingly aware that a sizable percentage of the African-American community see police not as protectors but rather as oppressors. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that police officers were, and today still are, seen by many minorities as defenders of a racist and corrupt social order. In this line of thinking, police officers who vow to serve and protect the people of the community are actually serving and protecting a racist power structure with bigoted white folks at the top and everyone else underneath.
As a proud black man working for The Man, Ron has a bifurcated racial consciousness even before, more or less on a whim, he decides to call up the offices of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a proud hate-monger on some Homer Simpson “I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter” type shit.
Actually the fake White Supremacist our intrepid hero pretends to be, who somewhat confusingly has the same name as him, wants to do more than just subscribe to the Ku Klux Klan’s newsletter: he wants to get involved with all the hatred and bigotry and cross-burning and hood-wearing and the Klan, being cracker-ass dumbasses, do not do the necessary due diligence and eagerly embrace their enthusiastic-seeming new recruit.
This creates a problem for the department, so they decide to confuse things even further by transforming “Ron Stallworth” into a Frankenstein’s Monster of a hate-monger who is a black man on the phone and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish detective, in person.
Undercover agents have split identities: there’s their true self and the person they are pretending to be. That’s even more true here since the real Ron and Flip are sharing the complicated identity of the fake “Ron Stallworth” and hiding not just their authentic identities as law enforcement officers but also their status as as a black man and a Jewish man respectively.
BlacKkKlansman reminded me at times of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which I so need to write about for Sub-Cult 2.0, which gave the swampy, complicated interior life of an undercover cop pulled powerfully in antithetical directions the trippy Philip K. Dick rotoscoped treatment and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Irony of a Nego Policeman, the title of which has haunted me since I learned about the painting.
Now when I was a kid I was angry that M*A*S*H the TV show and Robert Altman movie scathingly and satirically attacked the Korean War. How utterly pointless! Jesus, the fucking Korean War had been over for seventeen years when M*A*S*H became a surprise box office smash, for fuck’s sake! It had been over for seventeen years when the TV show began its nine year run.
Why on earth did these piece of shit Hollywood Liberals waste their time criticizing an old war when Vietnam was happening at that very moment?
Then I made an amazing discovery. It turns out that Robert Altman, and later Alan Alda, were actually using the Korean War to comment upon the Vietnam War. That was a pretty mind blowing epiphany. On a similar note, it almost seemed like BlacKkKlansman was using a racially charged story about racism, White Supremacy and the smiling, blow-dried new face of American bigotry to comment upon the currently racially charged moment, with White Supremacy on the rise and a David Duke type sputtering with toxic rage towards brown and black people in the White House.
It almost felt, dear reader, like Spike Lee was actually saying that Donald Trump is actually pretty racist. Nuts, huh? BlacKkKlansman crackles with timeliness and contemporary resonance. At times, however, it positively groans with timeliness. Spike Lee, being Spike Lee, has a very Spike Lee-like predilection for underlining and highlighting his points, and then following them up with row upon row of exclamation points.
BlacKkKlansman stops just short of having its coterie of hateful hillbillies wear Make America Great hats when they spew their hatred and ugliness. The movie begins on an audacious note with Alec Baldwin, who these days is best known for his shitty Donald Trump impersonation on Saturday Night Live and even shittier real-life personality, ranting to the camera about the genetic superiority of the white race.
A wildly entertaining, raucously funny manifesto chockablock with historical irony follows, ending with a gut-punch of a closer that draws a direct link between the newfangled spin on old-fashioned, All-American white-on-black racism Ron and his collaborators were fighting and the ghouls of the Alt-Right and the Unite the Right rally where they bared their fangs and exposed the brutal ugliness and deep-seated hatred behind Trumpism.
In one of the film’s most powerful and poignant scenes, Harry Belafonte plays an ancient, regal Civil Rights activist who recounts the toxic influence Birth of a Nation had on a white, scared audience already predisposed to believe the worst about African-Americans to a rapt audience of young Black Power acolytes. With deep sadness in his voice, he talks about how then-President Woodrow Wilson described the movie as "history written with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
While Woodrow Wilson was, indeed, a racist piece of shit, it is very doubtful that he ever uttered those words. BlacKkKlansman is not history written with lightning. If anything, it’s unusually restrained on a stylistic level for an adventurous auteur like Lee. But it is a movie for our cultural moment, and, like many of Lee’s other great films, for the ages as well. If we’re going to continue forcing every film student to see and revere Birth of a Nation, at least we have a whole bunch of Spike Lee joints to act as an antidote to the racist poison of Griffith’s incendiary early blockbuster.
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