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BlacKkKlansman – Derivative And Reflexive

‘Love Hate’ … Spike Lee’s ambiguous message matches the undertone of his film..

From the vaults. 2018. On the pitfalls of resistance art that manipulates the audience’s emotions, and how to call it out in order to make space for constructive resistance art like Get Out and American Fiction

I watched Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman yesterday [27Aug2018]. In a word: disappointing! Yes, it was funny at times, true at others, but so lopsided and cheap-shooting in overall terms it made me cringe.

Let’s set this up. Take Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Excellent film! Killer premise, funny as hell, scary in a realistic manner — it had it all. A genius horror story that was well written, nicely shot and superbly acted, its political statement strong and resonant, propped on a killer premise: black boyfriend goes with his white girlfriend on a countryside weekend getaway to visit her creepily white family. Immediately you sense the stakes. Loaded like a trap waiting to spring, and terrifying in so many ways, the layout draws you in and doesn’t let you down. The humor delivers the message in a manner that only a smart horror-comedy with political undertones (overtones?) could.

In other words, a clever and effective satire that is already a modern classic.

Speaking of modern classics, there’s also I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck: an astounding drama documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. Terrific work! Peck’s documentary presents James Baldwin as a person, then as an activist, a rebel, or anything else. The author’s carefully curated persona renders him a revelation, his words a sermon from the mount of humanity. The civil rights movement and the racial plight of black people shine in this documentary because Peck puts the horse first, getting the humanity underway before appealing to our political and racial/anti-racist instincts. He plays into his narrator/protagonist’s strength, and the film shines.

In a nutshell, IANYN and GO are films true to their cause, to their audience and, most importantly, to themselves.

BlacKkKlansman isn’t. It fails, and laughably. In my not so humble opinion, I found it fake and sneaky — how it tries to lull you with its stylish and funny approach, pretending to be light-footed when it isn’t, pretending to be poignant when it’s glib, torn between the two tones while playing both levels and getting lost in the process.

In other words, BlacKkKlansman undermines itself, its satire not blending well with its didactics. (GO was infinitely more appealing and, ironically, effective.) First it pretends to be something it’s not. Then, just because that’s what Spike Lee does, it smacks you in the face, mid-film, announcing the hoodwink.

It bothers me when films lure you in to pull a two-dime fast one and then laugh in your face.

It’s even worse when their creators and their acolytes get insulted if you don’t laugh along or if you criticize their approach.

Short breakdown: BlacKkKlansman uses a bunch of MCs to point out the evil of racism and make a case for the advantages of a non-racist, inclusive, diverse way of life (great so far). The film’s MCs make an effort from the get-go to stand above race so we expect the story to follow suit i.e. delve into that ideally post-racist, non-racist, inclusive, open worldview. We seek and expect redemption from white power.

We also seek redemption from the militant anger of black power, which is presented (halfheartedly of course) as another symbol of extremism, crime, and injustice.

Instead we receive a dollop of preaching. (This is what BlacKkKlansman does best.) The film won’t let up, not even after having set up all those characters whose MO is supposedly humanistic and post-racial. Plainly: we’ve been hoodwinked! Again! (Smile, we’ve been Spike Lee’d!) The juxtaposition of white power on black power turns into a gimmick. The structure promises X but delivers X’dash. The non-political MCs, whom we care for, stand in the middle of the two extremes, hinting at a rational resolution, but their stance gets lost in a narrative that leans toward reflexive anger. Humanity our left foot and sore brain. This film’s message is one-sided after all.

For one, there’s too much time devoted to Black Panther talk. Less would have been more, and enough. To convey the nuances of the movement the filmmaker had only to showcase Panther radicalism, not hammer it home. (No, I don’t identify with the BPs.) We linger too long for comfort. There’s no appeal for center-focused people. No one except those with a taste for BP anger can relate or cheer.

It’s an emotional twister. The film revels in radicalism and self-righteousness at every opportunity, highlighting its real protagonist: Spike Lee. The infamous provoc-auteur once again overrides his MC to broadcast the approach he favors: loads of preaching while pretending to warn against the radical and dangerous Black Panthers, who the MC supposedly opposes, and which counts for shit by the end of the film.

Granted, there was a deliberate and clever pairing between situations, juxtaposing the extremes in both the black and white power movements (I got my hopes up for a moment) but the black power movement never came across as truly extreme or unjustified, care of the director’s choices.

What’s more, the white nationalists were painted as caricatures, and that’s fine, if one is making a satire, but shouldn’t the black panthers also be turned into caricatures, if that was the case?

There’s a price to pay when a filmmaker is so blatant about his bias. He loses the center…

But they weren’t. The only buffoons in this story were the white nationalists. The juxtaposition was lopsided, and I get that, too — it was a calculated move in a political movie, but there’s a price to pay when a filmmaker is so unashamedly blatant about his bias. He loses the center (there’s that term again — the fabled and elusive center that doesn’t hold), and much of the audience loses interest, except if you’re one of those white folks who live to climax over white guilt (see Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction and the ingenious way he deals with that issue– another modern classic!)

The implication is that the audience who doesn’t connect with BlacKkKlansman are the very people who would most likely help get Spike Lee’s political cause over the line — that ever elusive, missing percentage who might tip the balance and change the landscape, culture-wise.

Food for thought.

See, the film is based on a true story, the reality of which is a horror story when you think about it… but I couldn’t help feeling while watching this film that it was too absurd. Nothing about it convinced me. I’ve seen rocks with more brains than the villains in this movie, and while that may have been Spike Lee’s intention (paint the cracker stupid) there’s only so much you can get away with. In this case, the villains were so dumb, 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 demagoguery, Grace felt like he’d just sauntered over from 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 he wanted to get across was more important than narrative balance — if, for example, he really wanted to drive the point home at all costs: say, that white pride and white power are stupid, period (I mean, who can disagree?) — and if he wanted to do this while at the same time telling his audience that black pride and black power are essentially good and virtuous (a partial worldview, but let’s roll with it for a moment)… and that the only thing that black power lacked at the time was experience (it certainly did)… if we assume that all the above was exactly what Spike Lee intended to communicate from the get-go, it doesn’t change the fact that his choices were alienating. He lost me and viewers like me — people who would have loved the film if it weren’t so invested in its own polemics.

The reason he lost me?

Let me put it in words that match the occasion:

I. Am. Not. Your. Negro! Get it? Yuh, that’s right, Spike Lee, I am not your Negro, I don’t subscribe to black power, and I don’t like being preached at.

I also don’t like how Lee pretended to expose the drawbacks of extremism, yet somehow glorified his preferred extreme. I love political and revolutionary films that take sides, but I want them to own up to what they are. No cheap tricks, no bait-and-switch, no gimmicks.

I also don’t like wasting my time watching undeveloped, sup-par characters.

In the end, I don’t appreciate the tone behind this film. If anything, I feel that Spike Lee, and all Spike Lees, have a thing for antagonizing anyone who isn’t black.

Not only that, the Spike Lees of the world do a disservice to the black cause (yes, let’s go there) by showcasing it as something to fear, something that’s not only too angry for its own good — or the good of anyone else — but derivative of white pride and white power.

The filmmaker gets to glorify Panther talk while pretending to have taken a neutral position

Let that sink in for a moment. Spike Lee’s idea of redemption and justice hinges on a reaction against the shit-heartedness of white power. His approach displays no capacity for empathy, balance, or any kind of identity that doesn’t involve race. It’s black first, human later. All of it tied to a racial bond that throttles any chance of moving forward, all of it hinged on white identity and how to break free from that vice.

It’s tragic, how circular and self-defeating this approach is, falling short of goals that are waiting to be reached and breakthroughs begging to be made. All the 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 (her good looks exploited 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 too hip and sexy, ending its piece on a high, because Spike Lee gets off that way. The structure undoes any attempt to highlight the evil inherent in political extremism, and the overall black cause remains a derivative of white power. It fails to seize the real high ground or move beyond race, as one expects it to, if one is watching the film from the center.

To be fair, the MC does move beyond race (fair is fair) but he works for the Man so he’s not a representative of the black soul, as far as the film is concerned; meaning that the filmmaker gets to glorify Panther talk while pretending to have taken a neutral position via its MC, who conveniently has little, if anything, to say about that part of the formula. He’s a cop, after all, and his opinion doesn’t count. His character serves Lee’s (ag)grand(izing) — and self-damagingly partial — vision of revolution. Turn things around people shall, but to what end?

In that respect, the film fails mo-nu-mentally, losing non-black viewers like me, telling me — in so many words — that the black cause is not a mature cause, and not one I can trust yet. It appears to be obsessed to the death with the wrongs done unto to it by whites, everything about it centered around that dimension. It’s a derivative and reflexive extension of white discrimination, and doesn’t possess the clarity and maturity to seize the imagination of more than just blacks. And it sure as hell can’t lead the way, inspire stability, or shape the future in a constructive manner.

Beyond that, it also tells me that the black cause doesn’t give a shit about anyone non-black.

(If these words hurt, maybe we should examine what they point at, and not shoot the messenger. If they sound insensitive, maybe it’s a sign that the cause needs to add a layer or two to the way it operates, otherwise it will appeal only to the firebrands and academics. How the cause comes across to others matters. The proof is in the uncooked pudding. It’s not there yet, not even with all the goodwill it has going for it. Is it because the entire world is racist or because there are aspects of the movement that are so inundated with anger, it remains unappealing to those who might help it over the line? If the above lines sound ignorant, maybe those who call ignorance are subject to it, too, eager to label the critics before they look at themselves. There’s work to be done, and plenty of nuance to address as we move forward. This piece can’t cover all the angles, nor does it try to or pretend to. The intention is to single out a few key shortfalls using a famous case study to make a point about the appeal, viability and longevity of a cause that might benefit from a change in how it presents itself. And what to do to win general support. And who its true champions are. My vote goes to the Peeles and Baldwins, but there are still too many Spike Lees in play, and that’s a problem as far as I’m concerned. And if these words feel out of place, maybe it’s not just the messenger who needs to check himself; the ones feeling the rage are under the lens, too, their ideals weighed, their attitudes judged. Deal with it. Get checked, recalibrate, move forward — as opposed to preach, justify, move in circles.)

Spike Lee’s vision of the world is terrible, as far as I’m concerned. I can’t ever imagine moving into it, let alone calling it progress. The prospect scares the crap out of me, and maybe that’s what black power should be according to him (a scare-the-crap-out-of-non-blacks situation) or maybe that’s what he needs it to be — I don’t know. All I know is what I see. He represents, and this is what he puts out.

What is a person like me and everyone like me supposed to feel when watching movies like this one? I just don’t see myself or people like me or any non-blacks benefitting from BlacKkKlansman‘s version of black power and the moral esthetics that fuel it. There’s no place in it for people who haven’t drunk the Spike-oo-Lee-aid.

That’s bad news for progress. We need to make things work again, and this is a pitfall. The powers that be like to divide and rule, and Spike Lee-ism is perfect for their agenda. If Lee and his supporters don’t come up with a more inclusive version of resistance, one that inspires not the radicals but the majority of people, the cause of progress has a chance of falling short. (Yes, there are nuances to all the above, which this article’s oversimplified approach fails to capture, but to deal with those nuances we first need to lay out a few blunt truths and roll with them long enough to realize that for a cause to roll up the hill and over the line, out onto level pasture, it has got to earn the support of those who seek to move forward; and that to move forward, one must stop circling back all the time. The moment is now, and so are the arguments that will make the difference — here, now, filled with momentum, which one can build on by looking and moving ahead.)

Read the book, see the difference for yourselves. It’s the better story…

Bottom line, I cannot feel for Lee’s vision, and refuse to support it. It speaks to me in all the wrong ways.

That makes him — and the resistance in general — weaker. The division is real.

As far as I’m concerned, progressive causes, especially emerging ones, need to be fiery and wild to make themselves heard, yes, 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 any given auteur or a darling theory, and the stakes extremely high.

There it is: my two unsolicited cents.

Get Out? Yes, by all means!

I Am Not Your Negro? Hell yeah!

American Fiction? More, please! — and more art that refuses to play to the in-fashion stereotypes, and which is human first and foremost.

BlacKkKlansman? F off! With a capital F, for capital Failure to engage, inspire, or make positive impact.

To bring about real and lasting progress we need to do better. And to do better, we need to bring people in, not preach the shit out of them or pander to the loudest in our crowd.

More food for thought.

From your socratic Spin Doctor,

Eyes open, mind sharp.

PS – I read the book, btw, and it’s balanced, sobering, and true to the tone of its overall narrative. It tells the story it sets out to tell. Spike Lee, on the other hand, messed with the narrative more than the story could handle. He cut a number of sobering parts toward the end, turning the account into the kind of polemic the book was never meant to be. I recommend you read the book and see the difference for yourselves. It’s the better story, way more poignant, with a message that hits hard, for me anyway.