Spike Lee’s latest film and condemnation, BlacKkKlansman, isn’t really a comedy. Sure, it’s been marketed as one. Sure, its title brings to mind Dave Chappelle’s infamous/hilarious skit from over a decade ago. And sure, one of the best ways to take away the power of racists is to expose their silly and ignorant nature (which this film does in spades). No, it still isn’t really a comedy. Spike has gone the satirical route before, most recently with his modern-day musical/Greek play-ish Chi-Raq, but even then that too wouldn’t and shouldn’t be classified under the song and dance genre.
So, what is BlacKkKlansman? What has Spike Lee made for us that looks funny but ultimately is very serious?
I suppose we’ll have to look at its opening, closing and supporting moments to find the answer.
The film, about a real-life African American detective who found a way to infiltrate the KKK, begins with a terrifyingly playful and playfully terrifying monologue of righteous demagoguery, performed by Alec Baldwin. Here, in front of an “educational” slide show screen, he is reading a fiery speech about racial purity, inferiority, and nationalism in the guise of a 50s promotional film strip. Many times, he fumbles a line and gets upset with himself, requesting assistance from an unseen female stagehand. It would be too late to compare this to Glenn Beck, so Alex Jones will have to do. The fear and anxiety he exudes are frighteningly all too familiar and equally embarrassing. Embarrassing for him to do it (whether he feels it or not) and for us to watch it (in the context of the film’s style).
Throughout the movie, we get a small glimpse into the KKK underworld and presentation, lead by a “look, I’m a grown up with a mustache” David Duke (Topher Grace lands the look, charm, and rhetoric of this guy) and followed by a band of easily fooled, poorly educated yet well armed and willing to harm simpletons. Surely, the pure race can produce better than these gentlemen, right? Well, no. From Jewish lie detector tests to hateful beer drinking sessions, these fools at the bottom of the “organization” totem pole may be stereotypical schmucks, but so is their leadership, just in more subdued ways. Duke isn’t about to blow up cars, but his “inside knowledge” of black dialect is so stupid your sides will hurt.
And the finale? It’s a true brick wall smash, styled for maximum punishment and enlightenment. We get our lead detective and a local activist, side by side, aiming their guns at a KKK cross burning. From there, we jump to today, where Trump has been elected and David Duke couldn’t be happier. Spike Lee has experimented with actual footage before (juxtaposing a scene from Do the Right Thing with the eerily similar death of Eric Garner), but here it’s shown without editorial tampering outside of a title or two. As is and so it shall remain, the ending points a finger, holds up a middle one and raises a fist in the air.
No, this is not a comedy. BlacKkKlansman is no Chappelle’s Show gag. If anything, it’s reel after reel of really real “I can’t believe we still have to deal with this”-ness. If D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation ushered in the resurgence of the KKK, this is the slap in the face tailor-made to wake and alert us all to their continued existence and newfound power.
Is it funny? At times, yes. Is it sad? Very much so. Then what do we call it?
Tragedy. The tragedy of America.
RATING: 5 / 5
NOTE: Bill also reviewed this film in a separate article for the Crosstown Conversations email newsletter.