Warning: The following article contains strong racialized language. And spoilers.
Some of you will understand this BlacKkKlansman moment, so walk with me here:
You’re watching this Spike Lee movie with its all-star cast and the N-word as its guest star. You take a note of the surroundings—some black folks here and there, but mostly a white audience. Cool. While discussing said movie later on, you joke—well, sorta joke—about how you hated something about it; the experience? The movie? The audience? Fuck if you know. But you couldn’t laugh on cue when everyone else did. Couldn’t smile when prompted. And you’re hit with the obvious question, “why the fuck did those white people laugh?”
To be clear, I love a good joke at the expense of racists. Half my articles around race are completely humourist in nature because racism is stupidly absurdist. I joke with myself to deal with the obvious reality of all that bullshit—systematic racism, prejudice, implicit bias, and black death—a nigger to nigga-like ownership. That’s the supposed framework of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman but it manages to invert absolutely nothing. And it lets white audiences in on a joke, while failing to demand reflections on that joke. This a Spike Lee joint here, a man who is easily one of my all-time favourite directors, and it pains me to say that I just can’t roll with him here.
I felt cheated out of my own right to feel comfortable in this racial conversation called a film. Get Out at least provided me a solace by treating racism as the horror movie that it is—unforgiving and unrelentless. Sorry to Bother You at least showed you the depressing double-edged sword of black success without prettying up the overall outlook. In each of these more recent examples I came away with a stark reality that felt honest but too heavy to ignore. In the case of BlacKkKlansman, because of how white cops were uncritically raised up as heroes, and the way systematic forms of racism were excused in pursuit of more cartoonish forms of it.... any racial commentary it might have provided felt cheapened by the white laughter in the theatre.
For those of you unfamiliar with the “based on a true story” BlacKkKlansman, the majority of the plot rests on Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his stint in the 70s as the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force. For the first half hour or so, audiences watch Ron’s journey from a desk jockey to an undercover detective, and through a comical set of circumstances, witness his infiltration into the KKK. As you can imagine, just the utterance of the “Ku Klux Klan” fosters images of ghoulish figures prowling the night for black lives to hunt. In BlacKkKlansman, the KKK are depicted as so stupid, terrible, and dimwitted that they’re completely un-relatable. They plan everything but accomplish nothing ( SPOILER: they manage to kill themselves). And then there’s the word nigger. A term tattooed on their slackjaw tongues like an unremovable soundtrack. It finds a safe place in every gag, jest and pun that audiences hear. It’s so damn relentless to the point of feeling trivial—quieted by a joke that busts in minutes later to signal-in white laughter.
In a NYT Still Processing podcast interview, Dave Chappelle once gave an explanation for this Caucasian phenomenon that caused him to walk away from a racist sketch. “When I’m on set and we’re taping the sketch, somebody on set that was white laughed in such a way,” said the comedian. “I know the difference when people are laughing with me and people are laughing at me. And it was the first time I’d ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with.”
That’s the problem with a film like BlacKkKlansman, the whole shtick makes me uncomfortable. Sure, it has all that good filmy-stuff like great direction, acting, and music (Terence Blanchard). But this still rocks like a 1970s message stuck in some 1970s (not 2018) cinema. A colourblind time when white officers were the avatars of good ol’ intentions, except for that one bad apple. It's the most non-Spike Lee examination of race that I’ve seen in some time.
I say this in professing that Spike Lee is a man whom I idolize. I love his stubbornness in telling it how he sees it—tip toeing be damned. And I love his willingness to speak filmic truths at the risk of reputation—a “giving no fucks” state of mind. I still remember Malcolm X beginning with a cross-cut visual of officers beating up Rodney King adjacent to a burning flag—my man X indicting America through words all the while. Jungle Fever, while problematic, presented the impacts of the crack epidemic on black communities, while somehow hiding within the debates around interracial love in the 90s. And Bamboozled made a bold satire out of the black image as seen by American society, shooting comedic darts before drawing buckets of blood. One thing I could never claim is that his movies allowed white laughter to flourish. He’s been labelled a bomb-throwing race baiter and provocateur for a reason. And ever since his matter-of-fact examination of race in America with Do the Right Thing (1989), I've consistently found that refreshing.
That’s not the Spike I know here. I get the whole tradition of landing a message through humour and deprecation. We’ve seen that in Get Out and Sorry to Bother You. There’s always a comfort to be had there, but only when the hurt isn't dismissed. Everything that hurts in BlacKkKlansman feels like a fixture in how liberal elements of whiteness deal with racial injustice. They feel above the offending actors (white supremacists) and find ways to turn away until the next moment of silence (shooting). White audiences can laugh in between “nigger”, “coon”, and “pickaninny” because the good white guys (cops) are helping the black guy catch the absurdly more racist white guys. But insert a new serious moment like in the case of Harry Belafonte retelling the lynching of a family friend in 1914, and you get silence and solidarity. Fast forward to the dumbest racist leader of them all, David Duke (Topher Grace), finding out he’s been had this entire time and there’s laughter again; insert credit roll of the Charlottesville white supremacist that ends interestingly enough, with a photo of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, the white woman killed protesting during the Charlottesville white supremacist march—solidarity up the ying-yang.
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best reviewed movie around race since forever—the majority of those reviewers being white. Now I'm not making any suggestions with that very interesting observation, but as I exited my theatre, I had to wonder why the last thing I heard was white guys laughing as we huddled through those double doors, with me, the black dude, feeling like I whiffed some bullshit. For the lovers of racial progress, maybe you can tell me.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.