I’ve got to admit I don’t really know Spike Lee’s oeuvre. When certain directors release a new movie I fee able to talk quite confidently about their creative progression, the development of their technique and so forth. What I do know about Lee’s formal approach is that he is given to juxtaposing documentary or newsreel footage to his dramatised or fictional accounts, and that is something that he does at the end of BlacKKKlansman, to devastating effect.
The film tells the story of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington), the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After he is assigned to a plain-clothes intelligence post, Stallworth infiltrates the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan by phone, and by use of a white officer acting as his proxy. During the course of this investigation Stallworth conducts repeated phone conversations, and strikes up some kind of rapport with David Duke, then head of the Klan, and a prominent white supremacist to this day. This much, implausibly, is historically accurate, drawn from Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman.
Beyond this Lee has fictionalised the narrative quite freely, introducing elements of the thriller and the police procedural, but important truths clearly survive this process, or are even abetted by it. I won’t give too much away, because you really should see this movie. Stallworth’s biography is used as a platform, from which Lee does several things.
Firstly, he satirises the white supremacists he represents. Some might suggest that he should not do anything to disarm them, or to make them seem less threatening than they are, but I think he does well to poke holes in the ideological image they like to present of themselves. These buffoons are clearly still dangerous in the movie (thanks to an invented bomb plot), but the element of satire enable Lee to highlight their stupidity, and there is always stupidity at the root of prejudice: not an inability to reason, but a state of being in a stupor, where certain basic assumptions cannot be seen or questioned.
Secondly he bears witness. He finds various means to represent both the courage and the suffering of the Afro-American community, and he is careful not to exclude any part of that community. We are presented with equally sympathetic portrayals of those, like Stallworth, that strive to enter the system and reform it, and those that regard the police as ‘pigs’ and see them as the unreformable enforcement arm of a system whose injustices can only be mended by revolution.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he appeals for unity. Many aspects of the film clearly refer to 2010s America, where division is the dominant political currency, and he highlights the origin of much of Trump’s ideology in the language of white supremacy. He has been criticised by some black American activists for an inappropriately sympathetic portrayal of the police, and for reinforcing conventional cinematic tropes of their heroism, but I think these criticisms are a little wide of the mark. Lee is not trying to say ‘not all police’, but is instead using Stallworth as a symbol, on which he hangs the observation that an end to conflict and repression could only be achieved by ending division. He appeals to us to stop ‘othering’ those around us, whether it be by virtue of their skin-colour, their uniform, their political allegiance, or whatever.
The footage with which Lee concludes the movie highlights one particular instance of sacrifice in the struggle for racial equality in America, and it is that of a white anti-racism activist. Although, as I said, I do not know his oeuvre at all well, I do know that Lee has a reputation for righteous anger, and quite confrontationally political perspectives. In BlacKKKlansman he shows that he is also deeply humane. This is an exceptionally entertaining movie, that also manages to be very obviously ‘about something’ in every scene. So while I might not be able to talk about the development of Spike Lee’s technique, I can say quite emphatically: bloody hell, he’s got some.