2019 Film Essays

Double Consciousness: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Writing just before the turn of the 20th century, black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the African-American experience of living in the United States. He described his own experience, and by extension, other black members of American society, as a constant negotiation with bifurcation, both self-imposed and foisted upon him by external circumstances. He wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman, released some 120-plus years later, is preoccupied with this perpetual state of “two-ness.” The storied filmmaker is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for the first time in his 35-year career for the based-on-a-true-story film, which follows Colorado Springs police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as they investigate the activities of circa-1970s Ku Klux Klan members. Double-consciousness is built directly into the premise of the film; Ron talks with the Klan members over the phone, while Flip, using Stallworth’s name, plays the role in person, attending Klan meetings and embedding with the chapter on a shared undercover assignment. The movie’s plot follows the investigation, while Ron romances the radical president of the local college’s black student union, Patrice (Laura Harrier), balancing his divided self between his roles as police officer and devotee of the Black Power cause, and talks on the phone with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace) while pretending to be white. 

Upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2018 and its subsequent stateside release in August, BlacKkKlansman was written about as something of a “return-to-form” for Lee, who has spent the last several years making smaller films — Red Hook Summer (2012) and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) — or films rightly or wrongly seen as misfires — Oldboy (2013) and Chi-Raq (2016). Regardless of the perceived worth of any of those recent projects, Lee doubtless seems invigorated by the subject matter of BlacKkKlansman, which allows him to practice a little double consciousness of his own. Though the film’s setting is unquestionably the mid-1970s — an aesthetic Lee seems excited to revisit 20 years after his underrated 1999 film Summer of Sam — the director intentionally litters BlacKkKlansman with overt reflections of the year of its production. The film distorts the past through the refracted lens of the present, collapsing the distance between then and now in ways designed to provoke the audience as only Lee can.

Though also nominated for Best Documentary Feature for 1994’s 4 Little Girls (the story of the four black children killed in September 1963 in a church bombing carried out by Birmingham, Alabama white supremacists), Lee’s best-known nomination came for his original screenplay for the film that really made his reputation, 1989’s Do the Right Thing. He famously missed out on a Best Director nomination that year, and went home empty-handed, losing the screenplay award to Tom Schulman’s script for Dead Poets’ Society. The Best Picture winner that year was another film about racial conflict, though one with a decidedly more genteel outlook on the subject, Driving Miss Daisy. Academy voters were much more comfortable with that film’s upbeat, crossing-the-racial-divide message than with Lee’s vision, and it’s easy to see why. Do the Right Thing is a portrait of a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer which becomes a microcosm of a city on a racial razor’s edge. By the end of the film, one black man is dead at the hands of a white police officer, a white pizzeria owner’s business is destroyed and firefighters turn their hoses on a crowd of angry protestors. That Lee himself, playing Mookie, a pizza delivery boy, launches a trash can through the window of the pizzeria while shouting “Hate!,” turning the crowd’s ire on the white-owned business, was no easy pill for a largely white Academy membership to swallow. The film was the subject of much consternation and “tsk-tsk-ing,” as many white critics ginned up moral panic about Lee’s supposed “irresponsibility” for daring to depict such an uprising on-screen.

As a filmmaker, Lee is stylistically inventive, muscles he flexed from his earliest works, She’s Gotta Have It (1985) and School Daze (1988). His direction of Do the Right Thing is adventurous and provocative. He shoots the block in as many colors as he can capture. His camera oscillates between handheld, guerrilla-style cinematography and highly choreographed, balletic moves. His actors address the camera in highly performative, Brechtian assaults on the image itself, in one sequence hurling a series of racial epithets directly at the audience through the lens. From there, Lee developed a crucial series of directorial signatures, including a rolling camera shot in which actors appear to float through the space as the background moves around them. Each of his films following Do the Right Thing feel like they are made by a director who knows exactly how to use images to carry ideas about character, narrative, theme and — crucially for Lee — politics. 

One might expect the direction for BlacKkKlansman to lean on Lee’s ostentatious, enunciative style, but it is often remarkably restrained. Shooting in widescreen, Lee uses the first third of the film to emphasize Ron’s isolation. He is the first and only black officer on the Colorado Springs police force, which Lee visualizes by consistently placing Ron in the center of otherwise empty medium shots. In his first interview with Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and Mr. Turrentine (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), his questioners are shot together in two-shot, while Ron is alone. He generally remains so until he jokingly responds to an advertisement for the Klan by calling the listed phone number out of boredom. Lee shoots Ron alone at his desk in the officers’ bullpen while he spouts racist nonsense at the Klan member on the other end of then line. In the reverse shot, Lee stays wide, the white detectives turning around in their swivel-chairs to stare at Ron’s inflammatory language. In this visual strategy, Lee begins to emphasize Ron’s navigation through one of his many double consciousnesses; he must reconcile his role as an individual black man, so often a victim of police abuses of power, with his other role as a member of that larger institution. He is both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Lee changes tactics when the investigation begins and Ron has bisected his own identity into himself, on the phone, and Flip, in person with the Klan. Lee matches the growing partnership between the two men by increasingly shooting them in two-shot. In their many meetings with supervisors in the department, they are framed together, while their boss is framed alone. In aligning Ron and Flip visually, Lee expresses their growing understanding of one another. Flip bears Ron no ill will. This is no “racist-learns-to-see-the-humanity-in-us-all” story. In fact, in an echo of a scene from Do the Right Thing, Flip says all his popular culture heroes are black. In Lee’s earlier film, he used a similar moment for his character, Mookie, to point out the hypocrisy of Italian-American Pino (John Turturro), who bears racist ideas while idolizing black cultural figures. Unlike Pino, Flip’s sin is not racism, but indifference; he just doesn’t think much about people’s identities, including his own. As he leaves the locker room after a scene when he and Ron impersonate one another to match their voices, he casually mentions that he is Jewish. As he becomes embedded deeper within the Klan’s membership, and is witness to and participant in a collection of racist and anti-Semitic diatribes, Flip recognizes the importance of his own identity. He sits on the edge of a desk with Ron, staring down at the Klan membership card that bears the name they now share, and says, “I never used to think about this Jewish stuff. Now I think about it all the time.” In two-shot, the partners sit back-to-back, joined by their otherness in the shadow of a culture that has rejected them for hundreds of years.

Though much of the film is made up of subtle cinematography — one imagines a younger, more frenetic Lee shooting the movie much differently — it is not without its own stylistic flourishes. Though he frequently shoots the phone conversations between Ron and Duke as separate singles, which are intercut in traditional coverage, he also uses split-screen to capture both of them at a particularly crucial moment when Duke insists he can tell that Ron is white by the way he says certain words. The split-screen emphasizes the absurdity of Duke’s claim, but also his confidence as he says it. A device not often used in cinema today, split-screen is just one of Lee’s visual throwbacks. Lee has long been a filmmaker indebted to previous eras of cinema, both in form and content. A signature moment of Do the Right Thing extensively quotes Charles Laughton’s 1955 film Night of the Hunter and the monologue by maniac preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Lee’s media satire Bamboozled (2000) draws heavily upon Sidney Lumet’s 1975 critique of television, Network, from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. Unsurprisingly, the film’s setting finds Lee engaging most heavily with the iconic works of the American cinema of the 1970s, the New Hollywood period that preceded Lee by a generation and deeply influenced his work. Lumet’s Serpico (1973), another story about a rogue police officer inside a corrupt system, seems to have influenced the production design of the station. Lee borrows a moment from John Badham’s iconic 1977 disco film Saturday Night Fever, staging a nightclub date between Ron and Patrice as culminating in a group dance number, everyone moving together in harmony. In lifting from the oft-dismissed Saturday Night Fever, Lee understands something crucial about the disco sequences of that film which critics of disco music often willfully forget: that dancing together allows people to transcend the brutal limitations of their everyday lives. Patrice has just made it to the bar after being pulled over by the police with several of her friends; she was harassed and threatened by one of Ron’s fellow officers, Landers (Frederick Weller), the most overtly racist member of the Colorado Springs department. She and Ron celebrate their freedom from worry, if only for the length of a pop song, along with the other clubgoers. They find something together there in those clubs at night, and Lee shoots the sequence with beautiful echoes of Saturday Night Fever, capturing the momentary possibility of escape with flashing lights and beat-matched edits.

The other cinematic preoccupation that drives BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s engagement with the blaxploitation genre, which he has heretofore avoided. Dominated by 1970s films like Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973) and Cleopatra Jones (1973), all of which are name-checked in the film in a conversation between Ron and Patrice, the blaxploitation genre often served as a vehicle for black filmmakers to stage revenge fantasies against the dominant white culture. The black heroes and heroines of these films often did battle against corrupt (white) police officers and Italian Mafiosi, against whom they always came out on top, and looked and sounded cool while they did it. Lee’s contemporary Quentin Tarantino, a blaxploitation-obsessive with whom Lee has clashed over the latter’s liberal use of the n-word in his scripts, picks up on this revenge fantasy most clearly in his own 2013 film Django Unchained. Its blood-soaked conclusion, in which escaped slave-turned-avenging angel Django (Jamie Foxx) blows away a house full of white racists and slaveowners, is very satisfying to watch, just as the early blaxploitation films were. It is hard to say, however, that any of Lee’s films ends as satisfyingly. In his world, wrongs often go un-righted, justice is rarely served. In BlacKkKlansman, when the musical score, the costuming, the setting and the genre conventions signal blaxploitation, Lee uses it to create a fake-out. The climactic moment of the film occurs when several of the most disgustingly violent and extreme members of the Klan’s chapter are blown up by their own bomb in a botched attempt to kill Patrice; in its epilogue, Flip, Patrice and Ron all work together to get Landers to admit, on tape, that he not only pulled over and harassed Patrice during the traffic stop, but also shot and killed an unarmed black man the previous year, and he is hauled away in cuffs by an enthusiastic Bridges who seems eager to prosecute him. Finally, Ron and the other cops humiliate Duke over the phone when Ron confesses he is black, leaving the Grand Wizard flummoxed. He settles down into a nice dinner with Patrice, and all seems well.

These individual victories do not stem the larger tide of injustice. Lee finally uses his signature floating shot for Patrice and Ron, pulled down the hallway of Ron’s apartment building, guns drawn, as they investigate a suspicious noise outside. Lee then cuts to what they see: a burning cross, surrounded by hooded members of the Klan. They have not been defeated by Ron’s investigation, but emboldened. Lee denies the head-nodding resolution that characterizes many of the films of the blaxploitation genre, including Tarantino’s in Django Unchained, as Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) ride off into the sunrise after burning the plantation to the ground and killing all of its slave-owning residents and enablers. This speaks to Lee’s historical avoidance of the blaxploitation genre; he would never be capable of offering such an ending and suggesting that his protagonists’ lives were about to get much better. Lee is much more interested in waging an assault on the perpetual racism of American institutions, a goal in tension with resolving characters’ problems just before the credits roll. 

In BlacKkKlansman, Lee suggests instead that Ron and Patrice’s problems are about to get much worse. He binds the 1970s moment of the movie’s setting to the present moment when he seamlessly transitions between the torch-wielding Klan members standing around the burning cross to the tiki-torch carrying white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017. He has blurred the lines between then and now so completely as to collapse the distinction between those eras. The white supremacists respond to their humiliation with more bigotry, the footage showing a gathered collection of white men chanting “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us!” and then, in Lee’s most direct move, being defended by President Donald Trump as having “some very fine people” among their ranks. Lee has drawn a direct line from the film’s opening moments, a surreal scene in which a man, billed as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, spews a series of vile conspiracy theories about Jews and black people for a running film camera as he shoots an informational PSA for the Klan. Lee provocatively casts Alec Baldwin, currently portraying the 45th president every weekend on Saturday Night Live, to play Beauregard. From the film’s opening moments to its final ones, Lee’s thumbs are aimed directly at the eyes of a broader American culture that has ignored the sins of its past for too long

BlacKkKlansman, fairly or not, will be judged as Lee’s “comeback” movie. He never really left, of course. That’s evident in the film’s most astonishing sequence, in which Flip is inducted into the Klan by Duke, while Ron watches from a hidden vantage point. Lee audaciously intercuts the scene with a group of young black activists, led by Patrice, who have gathered to hear civil rights leader Jerome Turner (played by actor and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte) relay a story about a young man who was convicted of raping a white woman by an all-white southern jury, and then beaten, murdered and mutilated by a lynch mob while Turner watched from concealment. Lee deftly parallels Ron’s hiding place (a small window in an attic) with Turner’s (also a small window), making them both witnesses to horror. As Turner recounts the horrible assault on the young man, Lee cuts back to the Klan members donning their hoods and listening to Duke’s white power propaganda. The scene gets much uglier as the members’ wives are brought in and they join together in watching a film print of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915), hooting racist epithets at the screen and laughing like hyenas as a black man is lynched by the Klan, the film’s heroes. Most daringly, Lee ends the sequence with Duke and his fellow Klan members shouting “White power!” over and over again, and then cuts to Turner’s audience shouting “Black power!” He’s far out on a limb here, risking a misinterpretation of this sequence by an audience preternaturally dispositioned to blame “both sides.” In fact, this is Lee’s rejoinder to the contention that “both sides” had “some very fine people.” He is not aligning the white power-driven Klan members, who cheer vigilante murder and mock people based on their skin color, with the black power activists who rise up in defense of their own bodies. His intercutting between the two groups emphasizes their differences, making the case for the legitimacy of the Black Power movement while undermining the illegitimacy of the Klan’s pursuit of white supremacy. 

At the core of BlacKkKlansman is an effort to point out the absurdity of the kind of white victimhood practiced by the Klan’s members and leaders like Duke. As Ron races to stop the Klan’s attempted assassination of Patrice, carried out in the name of white supremacy, Duke speaks on the soundtrack about America, which he insists is a racist country — against white people. Lee, a master of redeploying the images of cinema’s past — an impulse he showed in the staggering conclusion to Bamboozled, in which a compiled reel of images of performers in blackface puts the film’s violence in new perspective — uses BlacKkKlansman’s images to expose how white filmmakers have appropriated the suffering of black people to tell their own stories. Lee’s very first shot is so bold, it’s not even his own. He opens with a lifted image from 1939’s Gone with the Wind; it’s the famous shot that cranes back over a field of wounded and dying Confederate Army soldiers, the music soaring as the camera takes in the awesome sight of so many men who have sacrificed for the cause. Lee’s contempt for that cause is the subject of BlacKkKlansman, and his goal in concluding the film with a tribute to Heather Heyer, the young white activist who lost her life in Charlottesville when a white supremacist slammed his car into a crowd of protestors, is to argue that some causes are just, and some are not. The Confederacy’s was not. The Klan’s is not. The Charlottesville “blood-and-soil” boys’ cause is not. Ron and Patrice have a just cause. Heyer had a just cause. The same applies to Lee. To know the difference is to understand both the right and wrong of America’s past and its present. To know the difference is to choose to walk towards the light while knowing the darkness follows close behind. 

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.


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