Updated: Mar 30
Spike Lee has never been subtle. He addresses issues of race and power in cinema the same way that Baz Luhrman treats alcohol and glitter: without apologies or reservations. There’s a lot to be commended when it comes to his fearless, angry, never-contained portrayal of racial prejudice in his films. Watching a Spike Lee film, we see that Lee continually demands that we come face to face with the realities of hatred and oppression. In every one of his movies, we are forced to be active consumers of art, reflecting on our own impact and on our own experiences. Passivity cannot exist in the same theater as Spike Lee.
There is no passivity in Lee’s films or his narration. The audience is as much a part of the film as any of the characters onscreen. Ron Stallworth, the main character of BlackKklansman, is the audience’s guide through both white-dominated and black-exclusive spaces. Throughout the film, as Ron is lectured, so is the audience; as he feels in danger, so too are we in danger. His experiences and emotional investments are what tie the audience to the story.
The problem with BlackKklansman is that the story doesn’t stay tied to itself. While jokes that reference modern events and current scandals can date some films, in a period piece like BlackKklansman, drawing parallels between the politics of the 1970’s and today made the film feel out of its place and time. The narrative seemed to be set in the present day, and the references to front-page headlines kept the audience reeling and recalling last week’s news stories. The jokes weren’t funny for long; the idea that nothing changed, that punchlines about David Duke were as germane fifty years ago as they are today makes for a sobering experience.
This leads Lee into a narrative trap; the target audience of BlackKklansman isn’t white supremacists or Klan sympathizers. The people going to see this movie are not going for self-improvement, and (generally speaking) they are not the people who Lee believes are a danger to society. The audience of this movie is the people who already feel threatened, endangered, or upset by the ideology, actions, and purpose of the KKK and other white supremacists. The constant reminders of real-life problems that intrude on the narrative threaten the integrity of the movie itself. The fact that viewers in the audience were given half-hearted, watered-down soapbox speeches about the struggles for Black Power in the 70’s felt stagnant. The film didn’t go far enough to be effective or informative, and it wasn’t restrained enough to keep viewers in the narrative itself, rather than feeling like we were listening to a 101 lecture.
The idea that nothing has changed for black people was a struggle to watch with undivided interest, especially when there was the tease of an interesting story waiting to be told in the wings of this performance. The average viewer who already agrees with Lee’s point of view is forced to sit through a repurposed TED Talk about dated concepts that they already know about, while they really want to just watch a movie.
Throughout the film, BlackKklansman addresses the audience directly. The narrative structure of the movie is diverted when the audience’s attention turns away from the narrative and is forced to reflect on the ways in which the movie speaks to the viewer. This disruption to the narrative "illusion" of the piece of media made it hard for me to enjoy the film, and hard for me to invest in the characters, as I was continually being reminded of the fact that they were, after all, just devices Lee was using to make a political point.
This isn’t a diatribe against political movies. Nor is it a dismissal of Lee’s brutally honest point of view. The reason that I didn’t like BlackKklansman had to do with the feeling of being taken out of the movie every five minutes as I tried to place each quote, scandal, headline, and plot twist into the context of our modern-day political drama. It doesn’t feel as if Lee wanted to make a movie about Ron Stallworth’s story – in fact, Stallworth as a character receives very little depth – but instead focuses on making points from behind the camera about the danger of white supremacy.
The final narrative moments of BlackKklansman are not uplifting or hopeful. They are a damning reflection of the current era, administration, and division within our country. It is not happy - but it is compelling. It’s a galvanizing call to action. Even though I had issues with the way that Lee frames his film, its ending feels real and it feels strong. I would have been happy to walk out of the theater with this condemnation of white complacency and the idea that the threat to black people hadn’t ever disappeared but evolved. This would have been a good ending. This would have been the ending I would have liked. But it wasn’t the end.
After the final shot of Ron Stallworth and Patrice, he shows the real story.
The real story is that in August of 2017, white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed a young activist. My story is that for four years as I attended the University of Virginia, I lived in Charlottesville and called the city home. In many ways, as a military brat, it was my first real home, where I was independent, had my own life, and could make my own decisions.
The real story is that white supremacists turned this town into a war zone, and Spike Lee showed it on the silver screen, tacking it onto the end of a movie that had already too much Meta for its one hundred and thirty five minute runtime. As if Spike Lee couldn’t have told us any clearer, here was the video footage of the car that killed Heather Heyer, with Lee basically screaming in the background, “This was the movie I really wanted to make.”
Lee shows bodies on the ground, men flying through the air, and cars zooming backwards through the Charlottesville outdoor mall with their bumpers half off. There is no warning for this; Lee inserted into a fictional movie the very real, very deadly footage from Charlottesville. Watching this happen trapped in a theater, almost completely unprepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel as I watched my old home being shown on screen for pure shock value, I felt shaky and disgusted. I wasn’t at that rally. I carefully consumed news about the attack. I checked in with my friends still in the city. I had never seen the footage that Lee showed, and for good reason.
I walked out of the theater, shaking after the last five minutes of rally coverage. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bars I had recognized in the background, the crushed newspaper rack for magazines that I had written for, the gouges that the bumper made in the street where I had celebrated with my friends. I’m not someone prone to anxiety attacks, but I genuinely felt traumatized by those images, and was resentful that Spike Lee would use them so callously and inappropriately at the end of a film that is not about those tense days in Charlottesville.
Most of the clips used were not accessible to the news-by-phone public, and for me, I had insulated myself against a lot of those images by choice and by design. Seeing real video of a place you love as it’s torn apart by violence and hatred, in a place where you are not expecting or prepared for it, is not fun, and it’s not a good way to end a movie-going experience.
Overall, despite some of the overtly Meta moments of the movie, I enjoyed it. The humor was funny, the characters sympathetic, and the story compelling. It just went about seven minutes too long. If Spike Lee had not included real footage of Charlottesville - which I personally consider inappropriate - I would have enjoyed the movie more, and would have been able to reflect on the kind of cinema Lee was trying to craft. The problem was, that as I drove home in the dark, I felt as if I had been beaten with a sledgehammer meant to remind me of all the problems, sadness, and terror that exists, rather than given instructions on how to improve on the present and move forward in a way that protects Black people and those who fight alongside them.
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to her talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to her podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.