Watching the latest Spike Lee joint at a morning screening as per my routine was a mistake. I should’ve been there on a Saturday night on opening weekend, observing the crowd when the Nixon/Ford-era film alludes to our grotesque contemporary political moment. Tethered umbilically to this moment, BlacKkKlansman wobbles when telling the story, based on the eponymous book, about a rookie Colorado Springs cop plucked from the research department to pose as an enthusiastic would-be KKK member. For a Lee film BlacKkKlansman feels weightless. Nothing is at stake when the bad guys are this bad.
One of the curiosities about BlacKkKlansman is how it begins as a jaundiced look at systemic racism in a police force but insists on incremental reform. This is not to say that in a society like ours the latter would be a mistaken approach; but Lee’s film waffles on many fronts. Setting out to be what he says in his own words the Jackie Robinson of Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) accepts Chief Bridges’ (Robert John Burke) mild support and, in return, accepts an assignment infiltrating the Colorado College Black Student Union’s meeting with Kwame Ture; told that the Black Panthers are the most dangerous and radical threat to law and order in America today, Ron insists he can keep it professional. There he meets union president Patrice (Laura Harrier) while wearing a wire. It’s not clear whether his bromides about good black cops in white police units are said for the benefit of partners Flip (Adam Driver) and Jimmy (Michael Buscemi) — this after he learns that a gross racist cop stopped Patrice and her friends on their way to a bar and manhandled her. But in the film’s most eloquent sequence Lee lets Ture, played with force by Corey Hawkins, deliver his black power speech to an enraptured crowd; he lets the scene play for almost five minutes, the spellbound black faces filling the screen Hollywood Squares style.
But the meat of BlacKkKlansman happens when Ron, tipped off by a classified, calls the local chapter of the Klan (euphemistically called The Organization), accidentally uses his real name, and hatches a plan in which the Jewish Flip plays Ron Stallworth and penetrates the chapter. Why he’s allowed to pursue this investigation after his chief has made clear the world-historic threat posed by the Black Panthers isn’t clarified; audiences have to accept that the Colorado Springs Police Department considered the Klan and Panthers equal threats to public safety, never mind that the scenes shown to date do not support this claim. This results in a meeting with a group of pathetically unhealthy men, subsisting on Cheez-Whiz, endless cigarettes and terrible beer, and slurs. Regional president Walter (Ryan Eggold, with the right degree of fervor) wears comically oversized glasses. Like many bigoted men Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) has an obsession with penises — in this case the possibility that Flip/Rob might be concealing a circumcised penis — suggesting other psychosexual forces at work. The stupidest of the bunch, rather too cutely named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), is a sodden drunk. Felix’s mooncalf of a wife (Ashlie Atkinson) begs to be given a mission, like Lucy begging Ricky to put her in his show. Meanwhile reports of Ron’s enthusiasm for bigotry have reached David Duke in Louisiana. Clad in the era’s terrible flapping three-piece suits, Topher Grace earns BlacKkKlansman‘s most honest laughs playing a man of pathological mousiness mouthing eugenicist drivel.
Lee loses control over the material at this point, unable to shake the impression that the scenes with Patrice have a “Meanwhile, back at Justice League headquarters” distractedness. Frantically intercutting between them produces energy without tension. Is Lee suggesting that Patrice’s impassioned appellation of cops as pigs is equivalent to Duke’s well-spoken bullshit comparisons of black men and animals? Clearly he’d rather be on Patrice’s “side,” but that’s the problem with BlacKkKlansman: to suggest that the Klan and a black student union represent “sides” is to concede that the Klan have won. Having established the Klan chapter’s badness with a plot to explode a bomb at Patrice’s house, Lee has nowhere else to go. Ron berates Flip, raised as a non-practicing Jew, for not being passionate enough, but nothing in the framing or dialogue indicates a similar struggle in Ron. He’s a recessive figure, at worst a poseur up for an acting challenge, and Lee might’ve made another good film about a blank careerist able to absorb the last bit of compelling rhetoric to which he’s subjected. A commanding presence, possessing his dad Denzel’s rich bourbon-soaked timbre, Washington is capable but ephemeral. The script sidelines Ron for generous stretches but when he’s offscreen he’s wiped from memory; he has no resonance. This is a problem. If BlacKkKlansman is supposed to dramatize W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness, the film needs an actor who can incarnate both and bring both halves together. Remarkably, it’s Driver who succeeds; in just a few years Driver has become impressive at suggesting the movements of thought in consciousnesses that are otherwise too ponderous.
Boasting Lee’s usual jazzed-up pulse, BlacKkKlansman isn’t dull, but it lacks the originality of 2015’s Chi-Raq, which won’t be on many lists of Lee’s best films; while lacking a target worthy of its literary ambitions, it thrilled like BlacKkKlansman doesn’t. If the new film has any forebears, it’s 2000’s Bamboozled, not a triumph either and in its own way a muddle ducking behind the fact that it was a comedy. Lee designed Bamboozled as an assault on a liberal audience’s idea of good taste; by contrast BlacKkKlansman reassures, acts as a balm. The Birth of a Nation, screened by Duke and the Klansman after Flip’s initiation ceremony and for which they whoop and scream as if watching college football, is reduced to white supremacist agitprop. Some of his shots are at an Alexander Payne level of underlining, such as a scene in which Felix and his wife plot while a Bible on a nightstand is foregrounded. Gritting my teeth, I awaited the applause during the awful last act scene where a certain cop gets his comeuppance. No one clapped. Don’t underestimate audiences (for a stronger film about serving as the lone black officer in a white police force, by the way, seek Charles Burnett’s too little seen The Glass Shield from 1995).
Yet I found the conclusion, in which Lee’s trademark double dolly is a time machine that sends us to the present moment of crisis, bracing: a time when white supremacists can march in Charlottesville and a wizened but no less bland-looking David Duke can regard that march as a turning point. Lee can never have envisaged the riot in Do the Right Thing continuing with no signs of abatement.