BlacKkKlansman – an overview. On spotting resistance art that manipulates the audience’s emotions, and how to call it out in order to make space for constructive resistance art i.e. art that has a chance of achieving critical mass and bringing about true progress, something Spike Lee is either not interested in or incapable of…
I watched Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman yesterday. So disappointing! I mean it was funny at times, true at others, but, hell, it was lopsided and cheap-shooting in so many areas/terms, it made me cringe.
Let me set this up. Take Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I loved that film, a genius horror story, well written, well shot, well acted. Killer premise, funny as hell, scary as real life, it had it all, its political statement super effective through the use of a great premise (black boyfriend on a countryside weekend with his girlfriend’s white family?) … Terrifying in so many ways, and the humor delivered the message in a manner that only a smart horror-comedy with political undertones (overtones?) could. In other words, a clever and effective satire.
And before GO, there was I Am Not Your Negro, an astounding drama documentary, by all means. James Baldwin is a revelation, his words a sermon from the mount of humanity. First a person, then everything else. The civil rights movement and the racial plight of blacks shone in this documentary because Baldwin has a way of putting the horse first, getting the humanity underway before appealing to our political and racial (or anti-racist) instincts. The director played into Baldwin’s strength, and the film shone for the winning meditation that it was.
The film undermines itself, its satire not blending well with its didactics
In a nutshell, GO and IANYN were true to their cause, to their audience and, most importantly, to themselves.
BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, failed. I found it fake and sneaky — how it tries to lull you with its stylish and funny approach, pretending to be light when it isn’t, pretending to be heavy when it isn’t, torn between the two tones, trying to play both levels and getting lost in the process. The film undermines itself, its satire not blending well with its didactics. (GO was far more appealing and, ironically, effective.) BlacKkKlansman pretends to be something it’s not, then smacks you in the face, mid-film, announcing the hoodwink.
It bothers me when films do that — lure you in, pulling a fast one, laughing in your face.
In this case we have a bunch of MCs that stand for multiculturalism and post-racism (that’s the premise, the MCs try to stand above race from the film’s get-go), so we expect the story to go there and not stick to the racial line. We seek/expect redemption from the racism of white power and the anger of black power.
Instead we receive a dollop of preaching. (This is what BlacKkKlansman does best.) The film won’t let go of the racial line, not even after having set up characters whose MO is post-racial. Hoodwinked! The juxtaposition of white and black power turns into a gimmick. The structure promises X, but, alas (a la Spike Lee), it delivers X’dash. The non-political MCs, whom we care for, stand in the middle of the two extremes, but their stance gets lost in a narrative that leans toward reflexive anger. Post-racial the message it’s not!
For one, there’s too much time devoted to the Black Panther radical talk. Less would have been more, and enough. To convey the nuances of the movement the filmmaker had to showcase it, not hammer it home. We linger too long. The director tries to get away with a little too much preaching, all the while pretending to warn against the radical i.e. dangerous version of the Black Panthers, which our MC supposedly opposes (but the film revels in at every opportunity). It’s obvious how Spike Lee overrides his MC to broadcast the approach he favors.
It cheapened the film in my eyes, watering down its message, turning me off.
Granted, there was a deliberate and clever pairing between situations, juxtaposing the extremes in both the black and white power movements, but the black power movement never felt truly extreme or unjustified the way it was shown.
What’s more, the white nationalists were painted as caricatures, and that’s fine, if we’re making a satire, but shouldn’t the black panthers also be turned into caricatures?
There’s a price to pay when a filmmaker is so blatant about his bias. He loses the center…
They weren’t. The juxtaposition was lopsided, and I get that, too, a calculated move in a political movie, but there’s a price to pay when a filmmaker is so blatant about his bias. He loses the center, and much of the audience, especially the kind that gets a cause over the line.
See, while the film was based on a true story, the reality of which is atrocious, I couldn’t help feeling that it was too absurd. I’ve seen rocks with more brains than the villains in this movie, and while that may have been Spike Lee’s intention, there’s only so much you can get away with. In this case, the villains were so stupid, it hurt the narrative.
Topher Grace as David Duke? Sure, if you’re doing a full-out comedy. But with half the movie sprinkled with fiery political talk, a manifesto of talk, Grace felt like he’d just walked off That 70s Show to serve as a punching bag.
It cheapened the film!
And Walter acting like a suburban Beavis?
And Felix being the lamest psycho I’ve seen in years?
Cheap, cheap, cheap!
And even if Spike Lee was prepared to pay the price because the message was more important than balance (white pride/power is stupid, period, and who can disagree?) and black pride/power is essentially good and virtuous, but needs to be smarter (let’s roll with it), he lost viewers like me, people who would have loved the film if it weren’t so invested in its own polemics, and the reason is simple:
Spike Lee, hear me out, bro … I. Am. Not. Your. Negro! Get it? I don’t subscribe to black power.
I don’t like being preached at.
I don’t like it when the filmmaker uses the juxtapositions sneakily, pretending to expose the drawbacks of extremism, but somehow glorifies one extreme. I love political films but I want them to own up to what they are — no cheap tricks, no bait-and-switch etc.
I don’t like my time wasted watching undeveloped, sup-par characters.
In the end, I don’t appreciate the tone behind this film. If anything, I feel that Spike Lee has a thing for antagonizing anyone who isn’t black.
Not only that, he does a disservice to the black cause (yes, let’s go there) by showcasing it as something to fear, something that’s not only angry (I have no problem with anger, I get it, the entire world runs on anger) but derivative of white pride/power.
The filmmaker gets to glorify panther talk while pretending to have taken a neutral position
Let that sink in for a moment. All that ranting and raving and preaching against the white man at the beginning of the film (justifiable, and a good setup) somehow persists throughout the story (fair enough) while black power remains gilded in justification (hmmm) and looks good via its ravishing lady champion (using looks to score likability points? ok, whatever) while the white trash look worse than trash (funny but sloppy) … see the problem? The black power movement is overly hip and sexy, ending its piece on a high, not looking as extreme as one would expect. The structure undoes any attempt to highlight the evil inherent in extremism, and the black cause remains a derivative of white power. It fails to seize the real high ground, or move beyond race. The MC does, yes — move beyond race — but he’s not the black movement, meaning that the filmmaker gets to glorify panther talk while pretending to have taken a neutral position.
In that respect, the film fails mo-nu-mentally, losing non-black viewers like me, telling me that the black cause is not a mature cause that I can trust. That it’s obsessed with the wrongs done unto to it by whites — that it’s a derivative and reflexive extension of white discrimination. That it doesn’t possess the clarity and maturity to seize the imagination of more than just blacks — that it can’t lead the way or shape the future in a constructive manner. It tells me that it doesn’t give a shit about anyone non-black. It scares the crap out of me, and maybe that’s what black power is, or maybe that’s what Spike Lee wants it to be, I don’t know. He’s a spokesman, this is what he came up with — what is a person supposed to make of it?
I just don’t see myself or other non-blacks benefitting from Spike Lee’s version of black power. There’s no place in it for us — for non-blacks — at least that’s what his work communicates.
That’s bad news for progress. The powers that be like to divide and rule. If Lee and his supporters don’t come up with a version of resistance that’s more inclusive, the cause of progress has a higher chance of falling short.
Read the book, see the difference for yourselves. It’s the better story…
Bottom line, I cannot feel for Lee’s vision, so I won’t support it. It unnerved me in all the wrong ways. That makes him — and the overall resistance — weaker. The division is real.
Progressive causes, especially emerging ones, need to be fiery and wild to make themselves heard, but to win the day they have to win the center, the support of others. To do so they need to mature and look beyond their needs, tapping into a philosophy larger than life. To do so their champions have to play to more than just their crowds. The picture is bigger than that.
Get Out? Yes, by all means!
I Am Not Your Negro? Hell yeah!
BlacKkKlansman? No thanks! F for capital failure to engage. I mean a real bad shortfall. We need to do way, way better to bring about real and lasting progress.
From your vexingly forthcoming and increasingly socratic Spin Doctor,
Eyes open, mind sharp.
PS – I read the book, btw, and it’s much more balanced, and true to its overall tone. It tells the story it sets out to tell. Spike Lee messed with the narrative more than it could handle, cut a number of sobering parts toward the end, turning it into the kind of polemic the book was never meant to be. I recommend you read the book, see the difference for yourselves. It’s the better story, with a message that works, for me anyway.