The following is an excerpt from the July/August 2018 issue.
In a case where the events of history improve upon the fantasies of fiction, BlacKkKlansman, the latest Spike Lee joint, is based on the 2014 memoir written by Ron Stallworth, a black undercover police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. True to the director’s lifelong interest in depicting black history, he hews close to the truth of the author’s accounts. Stallworth did become a card-carrying member of the Klan; he did wire a white police officer and send him to rendezvous with the Klan’s Colorado Springs chapter; and he did have an ongoing phone correspondence with David Duke, leading to an uncomfortable dilemma when he was assigned to be Duke’s bodyguard during the white supremacist politician’s trip to the local chapter.
However, Lee does not get lost in the details of Stallworth’s life story, and BlacKkKlansman is no straight biopic. Instead, it follows the beats of a traditional cop movie, where a man of the law is torn between allegiances in his efforts to solve a case. In this regard, the film represents the latest chapter in the underrated career of Spike Lee, genre filmmaker.
Many of Lee’s movies, like She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, and 25th Hour, have used the landscape, the neighborhoods, and the culture of New York City to provide structure for his style and storytelling. Much as his idol, playwright August Wilson, did in his famous Pittsburgh Cycle, Lee is well known for telling stories that use the hometown conflicts between neighbors to examine political ideas that expand beyond the lives of his characters. But just as frequently, he has explored existing genres, using the rigid formal structures of musicals, heist films, epic melodramas, vampire romances, and Aristophanian comedies to illuminate the social issues that drive his more narratively fluid city films. In movies like School Daze, Malcolm X, Bamboozled, and now BlacKkKlansman, Lee manages to crack the codes of genre storytelling, confronting audiences by placing the black experience at the center of familiar narratives.
School Daze (1988) was Lee’s first experiment in setting his style within the confines of an established genre. He chose the musical to provide the format for his story about warring ideologies on black campuses. In a genre where ecstatic emotion drives characters to burst into song, the feelings that drive the musicality of School Daze are the anger, pride, and plain dumb horniness that consume these students, who are on the verge of leaving the bubble of their historically black colleges. Rather than the Sharks and Jets, Lee’s fictional Mission College has Gamma Phi Gamma and men who choose not to participate in Greek life, like the film’s hero, Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne). Where hyper-masculine conflict exploded in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at a barn-raising, and in West Side Story at a community dance at the local gym, the site for male display of aggression in School Daze becomes a step show. The black hair salon emerges as another war zone, erupting into song as “Jiggaboos” and “Wannabes” hurl accusations and insults from across the divide between straight and nappy hair, light and dark complexions.
With School Daze, Lee affirmed that there is something chemically, magically, mechanically, spiritually correct in the cinematic presumption that a person overcome with emotion should only be able to express that feeling through song. But the elation that comes from watching a beautifully choreographed musical scene is consistently and productively undercut by the surprising unfamiliarity of seeing a genre typically reserved for the most romantic images of white Hollywood repurposed to fit the social and political concerns of young black people. Beginning with School Daze and leading up to BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s best genre films use pastiche to directly respond to the disorientation of looking into film history and finding a void of black faces and black artistry. Like a fist that has been punched through a wall, the images in Lee’s genre films bust out from a history of cinematic suppression.