Urgency and reflection do not often sit together – and nor should they. Usually. When an ambulance receives an emergency call, the crew don’t sit around reflecting on what might be the best treatment; they don’t pour over maps together discerning the best route to the site of the emergency. It’s all done on the fly, usually with the support of others. Other times reflection is important, no matter the apparent urgency. I may feel it’s urgent to add my thoughts to a discussion, for instance – my perspective is burning in my heart with every passing syllable, but as an introvert I frustratingly find I can’t get a word in edgeways with which to dispense my pearls. But reflect a moment: is my voice really needed? Is what I have to say really that revolutionary or perceptive?
BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee, has arrived on a wave of urgency and hot-takes and opinion pieces. I’m a white man, and film criticism has a superfluity of people from that demographic. In all honesty there are very few people waiting for my take on it. That’s all well and good, until one sees the film. It may be set in the past but the subject-matter, the film’s extraordinary epilogue and the way that epilogue is carefully but clearly foreshadowed throughout the film make clear that this is indeed an urgent film. The end result of seeing this film is so overwhelming and moving, so urgent and clearly of profound relevance to the world in which we live, that I stumbles out of the cinema desperate to talk to someone about it. But I couldn’t. I could barely form the words to talk to my wife about it (with whom I saw it); I managed a few whispered conversations along the lines of ‘It’s great. Those last 10 minutes; wow’. But it’s been hard to articulate what and how and why I think about it all.
Then along came Serena Williams, racket smash and foul-mouthed tirade and all, to complicate matters. I found the voice to comment on that, on what I feel was racially tinged, sexist treatment of her both on court and in the media. Somehow I found myself trying to link Serena and BlacKkKlansman and Donald Trump and a few other things besides. My magpie mind rarely moves in straight lines, but still I couldn’t quite articulate it.
Here I am, a week or so on from seeing BlacKkKlansman, still unable to fully articulate a response to it. The facts are quite simple. Based on a somewhat extraordinary true story that seems too bizarre to be real, it’s the story of Ron Stallwaorth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who uses his voice on the telephone to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK in the 1970s; in a bizarre echo of Cyrano De Bergerac, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman incarnates his telephone personality. Much of it is played for laughs – and the laughs are real, out-loud, clever ones. The performances are note-perfect, pitching the comedy with just the right undertones of impending suffering. It’s in the film’s final act that the story takes a fully dark, disturbing tone – personalities unravel and events spiral out of of everyone’s control; then, in the film’s coda, we find ourselves with documentary footage of Trump and emboldened white-supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville. A character’s earlier insistence that America would never elect someone who would appeal to the KKK’s base rings in our ears, exposing the lies of comfortable liberalism in the same way as the heightened reality of Get Out did.
This is no heightened reality, however (no criticism of Get Out’s take on things – it worked brilliantly); the last few minutes of footage I had studiously avoided from seeing in detail in news reports becomes inescapable; the reality of a white supremacist in the White House exposed as a sin to lay at the door of smug white liberalism as much as at the feet of those walking the streets of Charlottesville with flaming torches. The film is a cry of rage and a call to action made all the more audible by the film’s respect for its medium and its audience – it never forgets the importance of telling a good story, of being funny and exciting. We finish on a still image of a young white woman who died in the protests at Charlottesville, her dates underlined with the maxim ‘Rest In Power’.
In truth, I still don’t know what to think or say about all this. It’s clearly Spike Lee’s best film for a while; perhaps his masterpiece (which is quite something, given his back catalogue). It’s certainly important, as much as I hate the worthiness so often associated with the word as applied to art. What I can say, though, is that this film shows me abundantly and completely that the world doesn’t need the pontificating of over-privileged white men like me. It needs us to listen, and then not act. Listen to the times, listen to the voices of the marginalised and fearful, then to do what they ask us to do. Above all, it tells us never to rest in the comfortable lie of ‘It will never happen’. It will, it did, and it is. In America, and with growing confidence in many other countries.