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Film When is a Spike Lee film out of joint? Revisiting the implications of BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKLansman.

David Lee/Focus Features

Should you misstep and ask Spike Lee about his predilection for conventional generic frameworks, he will be the first to correct you: He doesn’t make types of films, he makes Spike Lee joints.

Regardless of this self-fashioning, there is a clear divide between those films of his that many consider to be emblematic of the “joint” nomenclature – School Daze (1988), Bamboozled (2000), Chi-Raq (2015) and, of course, Do The Right Thing (1989) – and those films, the likes of Inside Man (2006), Miracle at St. Anna (2008) or, arguably, 25th Hour (2002), which are clearly in service of and aspire toward conventional form and, for all intents and purposes, more “conventional” audiences.

This isn’t to pit one track of Lee’s against another, or to fall into the tiring zero-sum game of debating what does or doesn’t make a “black film” – because, more often than not, in the cultural imagination of the director’s formative audiences, to be a “Spike Lee joint” proper is to be decidedly and unapologetically black – but rather to consider the space wherein his most recent film, BlacKkKlansman, has been fashioned. A week after it received four Golden Globe nominations alongside the similarly black-led and -directed If Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther, it feels necessary to revisit the implications of Lee’s newest work.

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BlacKkKlansman might be one of Lee’s slickest films in recent memory, but it is also his most politically ambivalent. By unmindfully adopting classical structures and forms, Lee has succeeded in offering up a black politic made palatable by a rounding off of sharp, radical edges and a glaring disavowal of how fundamentally at odds its narrative devices are with blackness. This approach is not something that has escaped the gaze of much of his previous work in film, in particular, those films that have focused emphatically on the violence of such structures.

BlacKkKlansman might be one of Spike Lee’s slickest films in recent memory, but it is also his most politically ambivalent.

David Lee

A quick look at the director’s filmography and most would glean that an attention to institutional anti-blackness, and its currencies in everyday life and art, is indeed one of most trenchant political undercurrents of many a Spike Lee joint. How did we go from the death of Radio Raheem to a film that paints its own fictional account of structural state violence with such dispassion, minus a police department’s few bad seeds conveniently located outside of any kind of call for audience identification? There are those calls by Lee to the audience, to its main character, to “wake up,” but these pleas seem more like winking Spike-isms, planted only to have their original force inadvertently muffled in the present by his own directorial hand. It makes one wonder if such Spikeisms made their way into his consultation on the NYPD’s public advertising campaigns (a consult which came with the hefty price tag of US$219,113).

Of course, as a black artist, Lee owes us nothing more of himself, but there is a clear divide between BlacKkKlansman and his past work that has similarly taken on this dual thematic of race and power. Those joints – the Chi-Raqs, the Malcolm Xs – are forceful, often times to a point of didacticism, and seem as if they have been cast immediately from the inside of Lee’s mind. Many of them are extremely problematic in their fight to champion black thought, a quality enabled even more so by the feeling that Lee’s ideas, for better or for worse, have been given room to swell over in fruitful abundance.

In forwarding its glossy narrative veneer, BlacKkKlansman has also glossed over many of the complex and interlocking (and often at odds) ideas that quintessentially make up what we have come to think of as a Spike Lee joint. This isn’t to take Lee to task for straying toward more mainstream fare or for attempting to synthesize his directorial lanes, but instead to note that BlacKkKlansman is a film that tries to have its cake and eat it, too. This is a film that brings in a piecemeal politics of black liberation only to stunt it in favour of narrative (and some might say, critical) ease.

BlacKkKlansman is pure entertainment that lays the lengthy groundwork for, but doesn’t quite succeed at, a radical, almost meta disidentification. Lee’s use of Vice News footage of Charlottesville veers close to success if viewed in this light, and, if we’re to give the film’s internal machinations such breadth, serves as almost a meta commentary on its own audience. The film enables white audiences to distance themselves from the reality of the story at hand – indeed, BlacKkKlansman caters to whiteness in as much as it gives us caricatures of racism rather than any deep examination of anti-blackness or anti-Semitism itself.

BlacKkKlansman is pure entertainment that lays the lengthy groundwork for, but doesn’t quite succeed at, a radical, almost meta disidentification.

David Lee/Focus Features

How much one believes in the satirical potential of the film comes down to how much one believes that the film offers us threads from the fabric of the everyday, rather than just being a comedic romp akin to a Dave Chappelle skit. Lee’s ending unsettles the latter comfort that many white audiences may find themselves leaning into for the majority of the film’s runtime, resulting in a film that seems to be aimlessly torn between its function as social diagnosis and that as a popcorn flick. That the Globes would tip their hat to such a film is of no surprise.

This easy political palatability has clearly paved the way for BlacKkKlansman’s success, with many lauding it, especially at year’s end, as a film more indicative of our present political moment than any other. For this group, the film has raised an irrevocable call to arms, having armed itself with just enough ammunition to be crowned the first film of the Trump era. But this era has existed long before No. 45. To say otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the politics at work in even the most milquetoast of films – upholding the status quo in silence is as political a choice as those of our Lees, Cooglers and Jenkinses. It seems enough for most white critics just to be able to correctly identify that what they have indeed witnessed was something radical, capital R, or political, capital P; to identify the feeling, but not the cause; the symptom, but not the disease.

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The bar is embarrassingly low, in terms of both praise and critique, and even more overwhelmingly so when it comes to matters of basic comprehension of the languages of black art, never mind those of black political thought. What do white critics and audiences walk away from BlacKkKlansman with, besides a byline, a pat on the back from themselves and the power of having declared yet another first? Wake up.

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