Worth of a Nation: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the Oscars and Capra

Here’s why I’m going to bat for BlacKkKlansman. I don’t have to ask my partner about her best moviegoing experience of 2018, because I remember the visceral responses that came from the seat directly to my left – expressions of every feeling art can produce, a pile-up of emotions at the picture’s several denouements, and our combined disbelief that fellow cinemagoers could so hastily and breezily leave as soon as the credits rolled. It tops my list too, as it’s by turns apoplectic, shocking, crowd-pleasing and beautifully shot. It was up for four Golden Globes this year (bringing none of them home), five BAFTAs of which Spike Lee received only an Adapted Screenplay gong, and chalked up six nominations for the 2019 Academy Awards. Will this be a season of awards bodies seeking some prestige for nominating such shocking and wonderfully diverse movies, but chickening out from giving them actual trophies?

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It’s a few things, this film – a cop show, a buddy movie, a based-on-a-true-story movie, a comedy, a polemic – sometimes subtle, sometimes as subtle as a sledgehammer. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in Colorado Springs PD, who starts seeing just how far the whole ‘double-consciousness’ thing can be pushed, by going undercover in meetings of the Black Panthers, and by infiltrating the KKK. In one scenario, he feels not quite black or radical enough; in the latter, he invents a racist alter ego using his ‘white voice’ over the phone, and ends up chatting to David Duke. So many unlikely details of the narrative cleave closely to the biography of the real Ron Stallworth, and many horrifying truths in the screenplay seem to have come straight from history. However, Boots Riley, director of another ‘white voice’-based film, sounded a dissenting note, arguing that the untruths in Spike Lee’s film made it establishment in radicals’ clothing, and that even Stallworth’s biography contains fabrications that make law enforcement the heroic force. What’s real here?

Six Oscar nominations including the big ones – Best Director and Best Picture. Gaining a significant haul at the Academy would be a long-overdue recognition of Lee and several of his collaborators who’ve similarly been in the industry for decades. However, grabbing an unexpectedly high number of little gold statuettes can have strange effects. One of the biggest successes of all time at that particular ceremony is the first to win the Big Five gongs, including Director and Picture – Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. In some ways, the show was a different affair back then – Capra turned up looking distinctly unstarry, and Best Actress nominee Claudette Colbert didn’t turn up at all, not fancying her own chances and heading off on holiday instead. Over the course of the night, the director reportedly grew emotional, being thanked warmly by each of It Happened’s recipients. But watch later interviews with Capra, and you’ll hear how such unprecedented recognition proved burdensome – worried as to how such a success could be followed, he feigned illness in order to avert the pressure. Eventually, his body took a cue from his mindset and actually became ill. Amongst visitors to his sickbed was an unknown “little man”, who decided to castigate Capra for shirking his responsibilities. Who let this guy in? At that time (the mid-’30s) of escalating fascist rhetoric, the little man gestured towards a nearby radio broadcasting an address by Adolf Hitler. He speaks to crowds of thousands for ten minutes at a time, said the visitor. But you have the opportunity to speak to millions, for two hours at a time, and in the dark. Duly chastened, Capra steeled himself up, and headed in a new socially-conscious direction, producing Messrs Deeds and Smith as well as Meet John Doe.

For Spike Lee, a socially-conscious direction began some time before he began making films. Before Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing pulls us into the chaos, conflagration and comic moments around race riots; even School Daze is about identity politics among black communities. You could write theses on each of these pieces, or simply have your mind changed through travelling with the characters thereby depicted – and chronologically, there’s a subsequent 27 years’ worth of material to peruse. This all means receiving his receipt of the Academy’s Honorary Award in 2015 was justified, but that very Award may cause Academy voters to decide he’s been given enough credit now, and that Lee’s first-ever Best Director and Best Picture nominations will not yield any statuettes to bring back to Brooklyn.

In terms of the dollar-lubricated race to grab Oscars and swell audience figures, the Best Director and Best Picture momentum is in favour of Cuarón’s Roma – though not without challengers, such as The Favourite, Bradley Cooper and a few joke options – and Klansman’s splash was made deep into 2018 with its taking of the Cannes Grand Prix and summertime general release. Still, though we read the tea-leaves and listen to the groundhog, anything could happen, and a sweep of six Academy Awards is still within the outer realms of possibility. If I were to write the fan-fic of what might happen to Spike after such a showing, he’d soon be bed-ridden with mild anxiety about having become so damn palatable to the powers-that-be. Which he’d eventually snap out of, trolling them by creating a role-reversed reboot of Driving Miss Daisy… and the joke would wear well until we realised we were literally just watching a re-dub of Green Book.

I discovered that anecdote of Capra’s strange epiphany when watching an interview with the director conducted in the 1981. It was both eerie and surprising, and as he got to the substance of the Little Man’s message, he began to tear up – so I was rather annoyed that the interviewer hurried Capra along to another question. How insensitive! Until, on reading further, it became apparent that It Didn’t Happen One Night. Evidence suggests that Capra’s convalescence actually preceded his big Academy Award victory; that it was physical in origin; that there were other, complex reasons for his manifest feelings of guilt. Biography The Catastrophe of Success is illuminating on this front, with Capra’s incomprehension of his newly arrived son (who was likely autistic, but before autism was recognised) contributing to his need to blur autobiographical lines. The book even notes a short story optioned by Capra in 1941 which features a character just like the Little Man and a similar bedside scene of truth-telling, indicating that once he owned the rights, a story could find its way not only into his films but into his life.

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Far be it from me to render your old-school Hollywood fave problematic. It’s hard not to enjoy the trio of Capra films mentioned above, never mind others of his ’30s-’40s output, and I sense that his tears on camera mask an unease or a trauma that was only too real. But this seems to be an instance of a director, accustomed to the reshaping of stories, editing his life. I’m sure there was some autobiographical editing done by the real Ron Stallworth, to whatever degree, and if asked to write our life stories, we’d all do the same. Omit, include, embellish, or fabricate. But the thrust of Stallworth’s story is as “crazy, outrageous, incredible” as Klansman’s posters claim. I could identify a couple of incidents in the film that screamed “fabrication!”, but (a) they worked as story beats, and (b) some of the real stuff is definitely more far-fetched than the fabrications.

There I go, dubbing some events “real”. Let’s be on our guard against imbibing the narratives of biopics and historical dramas and assimilating them as history. We’re becoming a more visual culture, a culture whose visual media is drawing more on true-life-derived material, and one in which uncannily convincing editing is easier to do. In BlacKkKlansman, Stallworth (an excellent John David Washington) and his cover (Adam Driver, Best Supporting Actor in several stakes) are both secret agents who disguise or deny their identities, in the process discovering the weight of what those identities truly are. David Duke, seen both in a borderline winsome turn by Topher Grace and in documentary footage, is what makes the word “palatable” seem downright demonic – the acceptable face of white power has to do a heck of a lot of editing and image-curation to remain acceptable.

And compared to the best of the year’s movies, Klansman seems like a gut-punch, its direction and screenplay unashamedly provocative. But part of its freshness and vitality is in the editing (for which it’s surely in with an Oscar shout). While Roma may be visual poetry and the criminally underrepresented If Beale Street Could Talk visual literature, BlacKkKlansman provides jolts, segues, and juxtapositions that keep you restless and questioning what you see. So it may be truer to the year 2018/19. Comparing it to a news trawl or twitter feed, though, would undersell the work of Barry Alexander Brown, editor extraordinaire who deserves ample credit. Our Alec Baldwin-featuring intro keeps the actor’s mistakes in, highlighting the constructedness of the racist bile his character churns out; a speech by Kwame Ture (rousingly rendered by Corey Hawkins) instils pride in a black crowd with fervour, and we see not only the effects of his words on the audience, but the substance of his argument, as filmed portraits of those audience members seem to float, waxy-framed, in front of our eyes; the intercutting of a Klan initiation with another speech (this time from Harry Belafonte) is masterful, finding many subtle parallels, and soon white power and black power chants are intercut, which may scan as didactic for a second until you realise it offers neither equation nor moral. The film’s beginning and ends seem fresh and experimental due in large part to Brown’s efforts, and could not have succeeded without him.

It’s such an ensemble effort that Washington comes off as the frontman of a supergroup –the charm, bulletproof audacity and tentative pride with which he imbues his character could have carried a lesser line-up, but here he’s flanked by Adam Driver (nicely underplayed, and tbh I’m here for Episode IX, this year’s treats from Jarmusch and Gilliam and anything else Driver touches) and Laura Harrier – the movie-poster tableau she’s captured in at Klansman’s close should lead to a spin-off. And Terence Blanchard’s score (let’s presume he’ll lose the Oscar to Nicholas Britell) is smashing, fittingly bombastic and period-sensitive, remaining in mind months after the credits ascend.

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These are some reasons why I’m futilely backing a Spike Lee joint for Best Picture. One of the Academy’s Big Five-winners, Frank Capra, turned a lens on American society and aimed to entertain while he provoked – Klansman does that. The unlikely man stands up against accepted wisdom and becomes a hero – Smith or Stallworth? Capra soon assumed presidency of the Academy, and at his suggestion D W Griffith was given an honorary award. Yes, the pioneering Griffith whose hate-filled Birth of a Nation is woven into Klansman itself and is cheered by the Klan members; Griffith who founded the Director’s Guild, at whose awards ceremony this year Spike Lee announced, “2019 was BlacKkKlansman: 1619, my ancestors were stole from Africa and landed in Jamestown,” going on to say that founding father George Washington was a slave-owner too. Perhaps he, and the current president, appearing briefly in Klansman, are easy targets for criticism – one at the remove of four centuries’ worth of historical opinion, the other… well. If history has a right side, Trump will never darken it with his cartoonish shadow. However, the state of the nation of the USA deserves critical observation. And though I won’t bet on him making an Oscars sweep, I can’t wait to hear the statements made when Mr Lee goes to Los Angeles.

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