There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when Señor Love Daddy, the neighborhood DJ on We Love Radio played by Samuel L. Jackson, reads out a litany of the names of great African-American musicians —””WE LOVE ROLL CALL, Y’ALL! Boogie Down Productions, Rob Base, Dana Dane, Marley Marl, Olatunji, Chuck D, Ray Charles, EPMD, EU, Alberta Hunter, Run-D.M.C., Stetsasonic, Sugar Bear, John Coltrane,…”— that stands as a declarative paean to Black musical culture.
Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, the true story of a black police detective in Colorado Springs who in the 1970s infiltrates the KKK, has a number of such tributes. It’s in the soundtrack, of course, and the dancing. It’s in the clothing, the hair, the jewelry, but most powerfully, Lee focuses in on the faces, sometimes filling the screen with collages of faces, loving and lingering images of beautiful young African-American faces, as they listen and learn from their elders and leaders as they talk of the struggle for rights and dignity.
That is one of tones in this film.
There’s another scene in Do the Right Thing where the bigotry and hatred is at the boiling point and Lee cuts from character to character as each spews racist slurs at their particular object of prejudice and bile, (Italians, Koreans, Blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans) until finally Señor Love Daddy, once again, jumps in and tells them, “Ya need to cool that shit out!”
That’s another tone in this film. There is lots of verbal hate in BlacKkKlansman. Lots. As you would imagine nearly all of it is directed at African-Americans, though the Jews get their fair share, as well. It’s ugly language, vicious and violent, and it never loses its dehumanizing impact; dehumanizing the speaker, that is.
Did I mention that BlacKkKlansman is a comedy?
It is indeed a comedy. And a campy homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s. And a true crime story. And a political diatribe. And like nearly all films that try to be so many disparate things, it does some better than others; and in the end, the combination of it all weakens the film. It feels more scattershot and uneven than it needed to be.
As a comedy, the laughs don’t come easy. And at the same time, they come way too easy. The humor arises from the display of prejudice, but given the film’s embrace of the campiness of Blaxploitation genre, many of the characters … several of the Klansmen, the racist cop, the Klan wife … are so over-the-top that the humor doesn’t have enough solid ground to bounce. And when the talk turns serious, like the conversations between Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice (Laura Harrier), the black student leader/loveinterest, it’s so jargon and rhetoric heavy that it often sinks.
But really this movie is about rhetoric, about persuasion and figures of speech; it’s an argument that the troubles of today, both the vile racism that is so public and the insidious racism that lies barely hidden in contemporary slogans and rallying cries, is the latest manifestation of the historical snake of racism that is wrapped around the heart of America.
Lee leaves no doubt what he’s getting at. Nor should he.
There’s an early scene where former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (who changed his name to Kwame Ture) is giving a rousing speech. It’s full of the turns of phrases and powerful exclamations that characterizes an effective rallying cry to action. As a speech, though, it stands apart in a narrative. It gives a context to the action and characterization, but it engages in a different way than a story. This film is filled with speeches, formal and informal. Sometimes when the characters speak, it’s as if they’re giving speeches. In-between there’s a story, but it plays second fiddle to the rhetoric. With the exception of Adam Driver’s character, Flip Zimmerman, who sometimes seems like he’s acting in a different movie, a realistic drama, nearly all the characters seem like rhetorical devices fashioned to drive a point home.
Adam Gobnick pointed out recently that “mockery cleanses cliches, then restores emotion.” For me, the mocking tone in the film, directed at the Klansmen, particularly at David Duke, who is comically captured by Topher Grace, was too diluted by all the other tones Lee was pitching.
To be honest, I found that by the end, when Spike Lee caps the film with contemporary footage from the White Power rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, that I was stuffed numb from the cornucopia of Blaxploitation campiness, hate speech, earnest appeals, and heavy-handed treatment that had proceeded it. I understood it politically and intellectually, but the film’s hopping from tone to tone had so emotionally disengaged me that I didn’t feel the gut kick like I should have. Perhaps that is Lee’s point: When one is constantly hammered by hate and prejudice, even if done “in jest”, that ultimately we lose the ability to feel.
But it was clear that Lee was going for something more than illustrating the deadening effect of racism. He wants us to wake up.