Part of the allure of genre filmmaking is that it provides a built-in satisfactory payoff in narrative that frees up directors to experiment in tone & aesthetic without worrying about storytelling basics. Slapstick comedies, revenge films, zombie horrors, and outer space creature features all have well-worn narrative patterns in their basic storytelling structure, each with a built-in release of tension in their final acts that, if handled well, satisfy through familiarity. The latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, is well aware of audience expectation for that familiar, comforting payoff in its chosen genre(s) and happily delivers it – at first. As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern word remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize them against us.
John David Washington stars in BlacKkKlansman as Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs police officer who was assigned in the 1970s to go undercover in investigations of both the local university’s radicalized Black Student Union and, more unbelievably, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, a black man, mostly investigates the KKK via phone (for obvious reason) and relies on a (Jewish) partner played by Adam Driver to serve as his white body double for more hands-on portions of the investigation. It’s a story that’s presented somewhat glibly as “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” in the opening title cards, but is overall depicted in terms not at all resembling a historically-minded biopic of Stallworth’s exploits. Lee fractures Stallworth’s story into a multimedia approach that incorporates 1970s blacksploitation homage, Shane Black-style buddy cop thrillers, film school lectures on racist cinema relics like Birth of a Nation & Gone with the Wind and, most curiously, slapstick farce. Each of those specific genres & tactics reach their own respective built-in payoffs in the way you’d expect them to, with the undercover cops effectively solving racism with their victory over the KKK and that grotesque prejudice being contextualized as a vestige of a long-gone past. After that narrative fully concludes, however, a rug-pull epilogue comprised of modern cell phone footage & news coverage fully undoes that satisfaction, effectively staging a political prank that demonstrates in clear terms how small-scale, individual victories like the ones depicted in the film mean nothing in the face of the systems that maintain the status quo.
There’s nothing subtle about the prankish, sickening epilogue that concludes BlacKkKlansman, just like there’s nothing subtle about the blacksploitation, cop thriller, or slapstick farce genre beats that precede it. Nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. Racism in the 2010s is as public & as overt as ever, represented here in public-record statements from politicians like David Duke & Donald J Trump. Lee’s subtlety is neither thematic nor in choice of form, a reflection of how glaringly racist discourse has been allowed to thrive in the public sphere; his subtlety is in criticism of naïve do-gooders who feebly attempt to “change things from the inside,” something not allowed by the racist power structures that maintain that system from on high. All the film’s traditional, genre-faithful heroics are contextualized by the epilogue to be minor, unimportant victories in the face of larger, systemic oppression. In BlacKkKlansman’s main narrative, David Duke is portrayed (by Topher Grace) to be a cartoonish buffoon whose blatant villainy is befitting a racist authority figure in a 1970s blacksploitation pic. He gets his comeuppance as such, and the small-scale embarrassment he suffers being fooled by Ron Stallworth feels incredibly good in the moment of its third act payoff. That payoff is easily undone by Stallworth’s higher-ups, however, and a real-life Duke is shown thriving long after the fallout of the petty road-bump framed earlier as the ultimate victory. His hateful rhetoric remains just as blatant & ridiculous, but fully supported by the white men in charge. If there’s any subtlety in that dichotomy, it’s in Lee’s critique of the audience’s desire for a cleanly wrapped-up ending to a problem that has unsubtly, publicly persisted with full, systemic support.
It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy. It’s a deliberately uneasy mixture that makes the victory-subverting epilogue feel like less of an out-of-nowhere sucker punch than a necessary, realistic addendum. The film’s general tactic from start to end is to offer the built-in satisfaction of throwback genre structure, only for the poison of our modern, grotesque reality to ruin the party. The ending only reinforces that tactic by dislodging systemic racism critiques from the distant past with a nauseous, necessary update.