As the tagline appearing onscreen early in Spike Lee’s latest film exclaims (in capital letters, punctuated with an expletive), “BlacKkKlansman” is “Based on Some Fo’ Real, Fo’ Real” material. But instead of opening with his truth-is-crazier-than-fiction story of a black police officer named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s, Lee features scenes from films that he has revisited before: D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and the Oscar-winning “Gone With the Wind.”
Lee’s return to these two cinematic classics is neither happenstance nor hagiographic; he uses them to once again pursue a theme threaded throughout his work, to tell the story of American racial terrorism.
The juxtaposition is vintage Lee: a blend of satire, realism and in-your-face political commentary. First, a disconsolate Scarlett O’Hara weaves her way through hundreds of injured Confederate soldiers lying prostrate on the streets of downtown Atlanta. Then, a fictional black-and-white film begins unspooling, with Alec Baldwin playing a pro-segregation narrator named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard who espouses racist vitriol. As Beauregard fumbles and forget his lines, Lee projects actual footage from “The Birth of a Nation” onto Baldwin’s face, partially obscuring it into blackness.
Lee is not concerned that audiences may find the conceit too over the top. It’s perfectly in keeping with the times we live in, he emphatically said by phone recently from his 40 Acres and a Mule headquarters in Brooklyn. “We’re living in pure, undiluted insanity,” he said. “Families are being stripped apart, kids put in cages, that’s going back to our ancestors being broken up and sold. That’s the world we live in.”
Over a three-decade career of impressive range, matters of race are never from the surface of Lee’s work, whether the movie is the dazzling and incendiary “Do the Right Thing,” his box-office high “Inside Man,” or the documentaries “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” And he has regularly grappled with domestic terrorism spawned by racism, an abiding interest that dates to film school.
In his first year as an MFA student at New York University in 1982, Lee directed a short film about an African-American filmmaker who naïvely believes that he will be able to shoot a $50 million remake of “The Birth of a Nation.” The 10-minute film was called “The Answer.” It almost got him kicked out of school.
“My problem is that as far as ‘Birth of a Nation’ goes, we were told D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema, but other stuff got left out,” he said. “We were never told as students that this film gave a rebirth to the Klan; the KKK had been dormant.”
In “Bamboozled,” his 2000 satire, he tackled both “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.” Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated television executive who, disgusted by the network’s racist imagery, seeks to escape his contract by developing “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” which ends up being a ratings bonanza. The film ends with a six-minute montage that showcases the debasing caricatures of African-Americans in 20th-century film and television, images that “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” not only popularized, but celebrated.
Lee dealt more squarely with racial terror in “4 Little Girls,” his documentary on the 1963 deadly church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, by KKK members and white segregationists. And in his biopic “Malcolm X,” Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was murdered by white racists (though the police officially ruled the death a streetcar accident). “BlacKkKlansman” distinguishes itself by exploring the construction of the Klan itself, the orchestrated attempts by black and white police officers to defeat it, and how racist imagery in general, and Griffith’s propaganda in particular, has led to violence against African-Americans for over a century.
Lee wasn’t originally involved with “BlacKkKlansman.” He inherited the project from Jordan Peele, who on the heels of the breakout horror film “Get Out,” found himself too busy to direct. “I knew if I couldn’t direct this, I couldn’t think of anybody better than Spike for this project,” Peele, who remains a producer on the film, said. “It just falls right into his unique tone, which is always different. Sometimes comedic, sometimes harrowing, usually socially relevant and political.”
Lee set out, with his frequent writing partner, Kevin Willmott, to make the film his own, further adapting Ron Stallworth’s memoir, “The Black Klansman.” There are plenty of signature Lee touches: the music of longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard; the dolly shots; the political banter and sports talk; his use of historical footage and knowing cameos (most notably, Harry Belafonte as a speaker who relays the true story of Jesse Washington, a black man who was lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of the rape and murder of a white woman).
Lee also tasked himself with ensuring that the evil of the Klan, its iconography and cinematic imagery so familiar to contemporary audiences, could still land with the needed impact.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Tom Rice, author of “White Robes, Silver Screens: Movies and the Making of the Ku Klux Klan,” said American filmmakers have wrestled with how to depict the extravagance and elaborate rituals of the Klan without romanticizing or evading its hyperviolent culture. “The danger of showing the complete absurdity of the Klan is that it undermines just how pervading their ideas were and how influential and destructive they became in these historical moments,” he said. “I think to not parody them is one of the challenges for contemporary filmmakers.”
The 1966 B-movie “The Black Klansman,” about a light-skinned black police officer (played by white actor Richard Gilden) who infiltrates the Klan to avenge his daughter’s murder at the hands of local Klan members, portrayed the Klan’s costuming, cross burning and lynching scenes to high melodrama. Later films like “Mississippi Burning” use similar scenes as a shorthand to distinguish the bad Southern white racists from the good Northern white FBI investigators. In 21st-century movies, it has been far more common to lampoon the Klan, as in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), or to conjure up the comic revenge fantasies of black male heroes who want to shoot the Klan, as in “Bad Boys II” (2003) or “Django Unchained” (2012). (All of those films were directed by white men.)
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)For Topher Grace, who plays David Duke in Lee’s film, finding the balance between the former KKK leader’s charm and his racial hatred was the toughest challenge. “He’s very charismatic,” Grace said. “That was the worst part. How seductive he was, how smart he was to put a new face on the Klan, how terrible that’s been for our country.”
Adam Driver, who plays Ron Stallworth’s partner, Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish police officer who goes undercover with the Klan, said the political weight of the film’s message hit home. “The town I was from” — Mishawaka, Indiana — “had a Klan presence, and there were rallies and fights every summer in South Bend,” Driver said. “And then suddenly, I am acting in a movie and am putting on Klan paraphernalia.”
Aware that the film’s success depended on audiences not simply seeing Stallworth’s story as a history lesson, Lee knew that he also needed to update it. Which is why images from the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, end the movie.
The movie’s star, Washington, said, “It’s a period piece but with very contemporary problems.” He continued, “You see protests evolve: they went from violence and riots to hashtags and memes. That seems to be what’s consistent. What is the nexus? The generic kumbaya answer is coming together. There was an example of it in this movie. There was a black man and a white man coming together to serve their community.”
Lee knew that he had to make the connection between the 1970s and the world today explicit. “We were in preproduction when Charlottesville happened,” he said. “I was watching TV, my brother Anderson Cooper. Agent Orange” — his nickname for President Donald Trump — “the Klan, the alt-right, David Duke. They wrote the ending.”
“That is nothing more than a terrorist act,” he added. “Homegrown, apple-pie, red, white and blue terrorism.”