Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is more than just interested in the problems of “passing”: It’s obsessed by them, as you see in its improbable but true story of a black police detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who successfully takes on the persona of a recruit for a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Anticipating Sorry to Bother You by a few decades, the real Stallworth accomplished this feat in 1979 by using his white voice over the phone.
Some filmmakers would be content to turn this episode into a bizarre police procedural. Lee prefers to expand on it, using the story to explore the black American “twoness” of identity that one of his characters cites, name-checking W.E.B. Du Bois—a double consciousness that has sometimes tried to resolve itself in a single outward falsehood. In BlacKkKlansman, these dynamics of imposture go far deeper than the uneasy situation at the plot’s core. They complicate all of Stallworth’s relationships: with his incipient lover, Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pigs-hating college radical to whom he can’t own up to being a cop; with his partner in the investigation (Adam Driver), a thoroughly acculturated Jew whom Stallworth accuses of passing as gentile; and, of course, with himself.
The very first time that Stallworth goes on assignment as a detective, he’s required to melt into the young audience at a speech given by Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where the topic is the need for black people to purge the ideas about themselves that they’ve swallowed at the insistence of whites. A shift in self-alignment plays visibly across Stallworth’s face, as he progresses from awkwardly mouthing “Right on!” responses (a beat too late) to taking Ture in with wide, moist eyes.
So many instances of passing run through the film, at levels from the common daily acts of self-betrayal to a historic coup of Klan-busting, that I’m left wondering: What kind of movie is BlacKkKlansman passing for? The answer, when it comes, is unmistakable. Having spent more than two hours pretending to abide in the commercially imposed mode of narrative fiction, in which BlacKkKlansman has struck poses, lurched from scene to scene, and only intermittently generated moments of suspense or sharp laughter, the film in its last minutes breaks into the realm of documentary, freeing itself and walloping the audience.
Lee devotes the finale to a montage of horrifying archival footage of the August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and of the majestic equanimity in the response of Donald J. Trump, who felt that a violent mob of neo-Nazis must surely include “very fine people.” In retrospect, you feel that everything Lee has contrived with the fictionalized characters and action of BlacKkKlansman leads to these moments of current reality. Nothing else he does in the film lives up to their impact.
Not that he lacks for ideas. He even seems to enjoy some of them and wants to share the fun with the audience, as when Stallworth and his partner Zimmerman rehearse in the locker room of police headquarters before the latter’s first meeting with the Klan. It’s two acting workshops in one: Stallworth coaches Zimmerman to match his vocal intonations, which the Klan leader has heard over the phone, while Washington and Driver demonstrate how to play bounce-and-catch with the rhythm of a comic scene.
Other pleasures include a burlesque prologue set in the 1950s or early ’60s featuring Alec Baldwin as the fictitious, ripely Confederate-named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, who repeatedly botches the filming of a rant against black Americans and the communist Jews who control them. The movie also sparks to life in a couple of extended telephone conversations between Stallworth and the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), which have the sass of prank calls with some infuriation thrown in; and during Stallworth’s first date, when amid an ample helping of music and dance he takes to the floor with Patrice and flirtatiously mouths the refrain of “Too Late to Turn Back Now”: “I believe, I believe / I believe I’m falling in love.” As for the movie’s period clothes, and the luxuriant naturals that balloon in perfection from the heads of Stallworth and Patrice, it would be fair to think they exist for the sake of dress-up as much as authenticity.
This is to say that the liveliest, most confident stretches of narrative fiction in BlacKkKlansman are the ones that involve games and playacting. And that’s curious—because Lee, betraying a little twoness of his own, does not fully trust the entertainment values on which he instinctively relies. References to other movies accumulate in heaps—not mere allusions or glancing parodies, but titles, posters, and excerpts with commentary—until you might feel you’re watching an illustrated lecture, in which each slide serves as the next one’s caption.
Lee has always aspired to be a warrior artist, believing that African Americans can either let themselves be mentally enslaved by the images foisted upon them or fight back through images of their own. Think of the young Malcolm being waylaid into crime by gangster movies in Malcolm X, or the TV writer in Bamboozled trying to strike a blow for himself by creating an old-time minstrel show. That said, the pileup in BlacKkKlansman is exceptional, with Gone With the Wind collapsing into The Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, Shaft, Superfly, Coffy, and The Birth of a Nation yet again. Lee does not want to pass as a mainstream filmmaker (which is to say, in general terms, a filmmaker with a white consciousness), and so he waves the dubious materials of movie history in front of you as evidence of his critical distance from them. The result, though, is that he clots his film’s narrative texture. More than that: Because of his frequent preference for making statements over realizing scenes, he too often makes you sit through sequences of stiff, clunky filmmaking, as when he crosscuts between a Klan initiation and a lecture about lynching, in an exercise so protracted that it’s still going on long after the Grand Wizard himself would have gotten the point.
None of this matters, of course, when Lee makes his ultimate rejection of false consciousness, jumping from the time frame of the fictionalized story into the present. Radical black consciousness fuses at last with factual exposé, as the burning cross witnessed by Stallworth in 1979 is suddenly replaced by the flames of the tiki torches in Charlottesville in 2017, and the character played by Topher Grace gives way to the real David Duke, speaking in praise of the enabler now installed in the White House.
I felt that despite the patches of wobbliness and pomposity in BlacKkKlansman, the film was well worth my time for the sake of that shocking leap into a reality so rotten that spoiler alerts are neither necessary nor possible. And yet this finale, which is the movie’s greatest strength, is also in a way its greatest weakness, since it takes everything lively in Stallworth’s exploits, with their impetuousness, daring, and inspiriting impudence, and collapses them into heart-sinking images of a Klan apparently more triumphant than ever. Outrage turns into its opposite, despair, in a final twist of double consciousness: The footage from Charlottesville rebukes the happy-ending conventions of pop cinema, which Lee despises, but at the same time seems to deny that his 32 years of activist filmmaking have changed anything.
And the movie character of Ron Stallworth? You learn what he stands for; you see how he triumphs by his bold passing and then is tripped up. But Lee rarely gets you under the skin of his twoness. It’s something that’s talked about but not explored, in a movie that might have put a little more faith in Lee’s own implicit faith in progress—not to mention his dramatic powers.
If BlacKkKlansman falls short by positing double consciousness as a theme but then standing apart from its protagonist, so you don’t get much consciousness at all, then a thorough corrective is available in Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, a movie that plunges so deeply into its main character’s mind that there really is no outside.
She, too, is double, as the title suggests; and at some point in the proceedings, as you learn, she’s off her meds. That’s what you hear her mother say, anyhow, insisting into the phone that yes, it’s an emergency, she’s a teenager, I don’t know for how long, she didn’t tell me she’d stopped taking them. The call sounds frantic, but it does offer comfort of a sort: It enables you to construct a story about all the strange goings-on you’ve been witnessing in Madeline’s Madeline.
Now you can reassure yourself that you’ve been seeing everything through the eyes of a disturbed girl. Her emotions splash everywhere, her imagination sloshes woozily, and the theater workshop in which you’ve seen her rehearse must be making her worse. But then, which would you rather do: sit back and reduce everything to a banal explanation like this, or dive with Madeline into the experience of hearing a voice start up on its own, out of sync with the face that’s supposed to localize it, while in the hazy light of a small apartment’s kitchen—a danger zone ever since the movie began—a faint glow seems to spread beyond the contour of her mother?
Madeline’s Madeline is the third narrative feature by Decker after her well-received Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (both 2014) and is a major step forward from them. Beginning in the mind of its title character—which is to say, in mid-delirium or dream—it goes on to live firmly in the body of its young lead actress, Helena Howard. I might even say the film is about Howard’s body, or rather what she can do with it as a performer, which is just about anything. She has a lanky build, with limbs that can splay wildly, mince in delicate imitation of a cat, promenade with defiant sexuality, or lash out in sudden violence. Atop this whirring contraption of arms and legs is a head that might be oval, if you could ever see it whole. All you get, though, are partial views, mostly of two searing eyes and pouting lips, glimpsed through a voluminous cloud of copper hair.
Who, if anyone, controls this body? Madeline’s weary, fretting mother, Regina (Miranda July), wants to secure it, keeping this nubile teenager safe from a world that wants to invade from all sides (and into which Madeline seems all too willing to leak). Madeline’s new surrogate mother, her swaggering theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker), wants to deploy it: An improv-and-dance-based avant-gardist who seems to have been searching unsuccessfully for the outline of a new production, she perceives in Madeline a source of furious energy and surreal ideas and is eager to use the girl for all she’s worth—with complete love and support, of course.
Caught between these conflicting wills—sometimes raging at the first, sometimes letting herself be seduced (so to speak) by the second, often playing them off against each other with instinctive cunning—Madeline runs through a series of possible selves. At Evangeline’s suggestion, she can be a cat or a sea turtle. (Decker’s cinematographer, the brilliant Ashley Connor, obliges by producing cat-cam and sea-turtle-cam.) During a moment of truce with her mother, Madeline can be a pleasant companion, lying on a park lawn and chatting. (But the image is tilted 90 degrees, so Madeline reclines at attention, bolt upright.) When she spots a man ranting on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk, Madeline decides that she too ought to wander through the passersby and rant, and the film breaks into jumbled nocturnal jump cuts. When she’s at a house party and feels neglected, Madeline sidles into a too-bright kitchen, where Evangeline’s husband is alone, and tries telling him in a temptress’s husky voice that she’s decided to lose her virginity. And then, in the most stunning transformation of all, Madeline turns into her mother for the amusement of the theater workshop, performing a monologue that is so observant, precise, and pitiless that Regina flees in horror.
But I see I’ve again strayed mistakenly into inventing narrative, or constructing a scheme, for a movie that respects the fluidity of a 16-year-old’s sense of self by demanding to be a “what the hell?” experience. There are people with pigs’ heads in this picture—I’m talking about random pig people—and wheeling skies that could make you dizzy, and a theatrically booby-trapped town house that looks persuasive but can’t possibly be real. The one certainty about Madeline’s Madeline is that it’s about Helena Howard as a performer: a young woman who seems to have effortless, immediate access to every emotion and no need to stoop to mere mimicry in her characterizations. She simply becomes different people.
But then, even that element isn’t so certain—because Madeline’s Madeline is also about the question of why we care so much about performers, and how we might tote up the moral and emotional costs of acting. “It’s just a metaphor,” you hear reassuringly at the start of the movie, as an actress playing an actress playing a nurse leans toward the camera lens. “Are we using this as a metaphor?” asks another actress playing an actress later on, as Evangeline’s troupe mills around in confusion. Yes. No. I don’t know. All I can tell you is that something is at stake in Helena Howard’s Madeline—or many somethings—and that you’ve got to see this whatever-it-is.