Where you watch Blackkklansman matters. The first time I viewed what is arguably Spike Lee’s best non-documentary feature film since Inside Man, I was seated in a small but comfortable theater near Bryant Park with other film critics anxious to see how the native Brooklynite would spin this seemingly unbelievable tale of a Black detective named Ron Stallworth infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The seats were wide, there was complimentary popcorn and the majority of attendees looked like me. From the opening moments the racially antagonistic rhetoric flew with such veracity that it bordered on absurd, but we knew better. Though it is set in 1970s Colorado Springs, everything being shown and said felt like present day America. The on-screen hate is premeditated but unstable, staggering from one slur to the next like a drunken boxer intent on landing a punch. We are able to collectively chuckle at the absurdity acknowledging that it is no laughing matter.
RELATED: How Spike Lee Convinced Topher Grace To Say The N-Word
This mood follows me when I finally meet Spike a few days later. Dressed in a black and gray long sleeve T-shirt and BlacKkKlansman baseball cap, the 61-year-old film legend loomed large in his small frame. I applaud him for achieving the impossible; creating a movie about the KKK that manages to say the word n*gger’ fewer times than a Quentin Tarantino film. He doubles over laughing.
“I don’t know, we might be neck and neck,” he says pushing back slightly, revealing the first of several smiles he’ll offer up during our brief but meaningful conversation. He’s aware that the very notion of the film is nuts, so much so that his good friend Dave Chappelle made a sketch about a Black white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby in the first episode of his eponymous TV show back in 2003. This scenario was literally a joke. Spike even admits that he didn’t believe at first, but was undaunted after getting the call from Jordan Peele to direct.
“That was a sketch. I love David so I’m not trying to you know, there’s no disrespect. But this is something that really happened. That’s what makes it even more absurd. This happened. This Black guy infiltrated the Klan…And he wasn’t blind!” he punctuates with another laugh. He goes on to explain coaching one of his stars, Topher Grace, through dropping the N-bomb and why this film feels so timely, despite being based on events from forty years ago.
“That was the writing of my co-writer Kevin Willmott. We wanted to infuse stuff in the film that would make people think, ‘You know what, that stuff was happening back then AND today.’ For it to really connect, it had to feel like this film was about today, and not how many years ago.”
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, continuing a tradition of Spike working with the Washington family that goes back to Mo Betta Blues and Malcolm X (an 8-year-old John David was an extra on the film that his father Denzel starred in.) Spike reveals that Denzel’s wife Pauletta and daughter Olivia will also appear in season two of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It. When I ask what it is that makes that family so special he simply smiles and says in his Mookie voice, “They got it!”
A few weeks later I’m seated in a theater at the MoMa to watch another screening of BlacKkKlansman hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka The Oscars. In contrast this audience is decidedly older and whiter than the previous screening. They speak loudly amongst themselves about Spike and their anticipation for the film. The lights dim and I watch again, this time tallying how many times the N-word is uttered by everyone, black and white. 49 is the number I come away with—give or take. While Topher Grace grappled with saying it I only hear it from him full-on one time. ‘Negroes’ is uttered with disdain and other pejoratives are used for sure, but the hard ‘ER’ is decidedly scarce from him all things considered. The audience laughs in the places you’d expect but it felt different this time. It felt detached. It could be my own implicit bias at play but it didn’t feel comfortable.
In a Q&A to follow, Spike Lee and the cast discuss their film in front of people who will have a hand in deciding if it will be nominated for the coveted Hollywood prize. Spike was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015 for his contributions to film, but came up empty both times he was nominated (Best Original Screenplay for Do The Right Thing in 1990 and Best Documentary Feature for 4 Little Girls in 1998.) As he takes his seat on the stage winning a trophy is the last thing on his mind. He asks for the lights to be turned up so that he can see the audience. His facial expression is stoic. His answers are clipped. He corrects the moderator and his cast members when it is said that Heather Heyer and Malcolm X were killed. “Murdered,” he corrects for the former. “Assassinated,” he says for the latter. Nevertheless, he does offer poignant anecdotes about the film. He elicits gasps when he reveals that racist props used in one scene were not props at all, that they were ordered from the internet and available for sale today.
“Klansmen and racists wrote the end of this movie,” says Lee. He chose to release the film on the one-year anniversary of the domestic terror attacks committed by the ‘Unite The Right’ white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. Mobile phone footage from the tragic events is used in the film, perfectly punctuated by an appearance from the real life David Duke. You literally can’t make this stuff up. And if you take nothing else away from BlacKkKlansman, it’s that the past is prologue.
BlacKkKlansman is in theaters this Friday, August 10.
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