Grappling With Race, Racism, and BlacKkKlansman at the Cannes Film Festival
A black critic struggles with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman—and the overwhelmingly white critical adoration of the film.
Before the new Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I wondered which black American film critics would be writing on it. The answer, it turns out, was just me (and one other woman, Jacqueline Coley, who wrote more about her experience getting a ticket to the premiere than on the film itself). I felt that pressure and resented it. The frustration grew as reviews came in, most glowing, about how this is The Film We Need Now. Some criticized the film‘s missteps while missing some of the racial frissons. I wanted to be a critic writing about the film, not the black critic sassily setting everyone straight.
“My profession is not Black,” was the phrase in my head before writing this review. It’s also the title (Noire n’est pas mon métier) of a new book by Aïssa Maïga and 15 other black French actresses about their experiences in France’s film industry. On Wednesday night, they walked down the red carpet together, custom dressed in Balmain. The next day, Maïga told me that the other times she’s been at Cannes (for Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako, for instance) have felt like a “walk” down that red carpet, but not this. This felt like a “march.”
That jubilant, important gesture of the 16 women in black, white, and silver Balmain—dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—came a few days after a more publicized protest of 82 women on the red carpet Saturday, standing in for the 82 films directed by women (in contrast to the 1,645 directed by men) that have appeared in competition at Cannes. None of those 82 films were directed by a black woman. I asked Maïga why she felt that Saturday prime-time protest wasn’t enough. “I adhere to many feminist movements and ideas, and while I believe in that, I also believe there’s a really large hole, a part that is missing from all of these movements,” she said. “It’s the part that includes women of color. And because of that, sometimes I feel like I’m split in half. Half of me is a woman and half of me is black. And the problem is I’m a whole.” (This reminded me of Anita Hill’s statement about the Clarence Thomas hearings, which I refer to often: “People think… he had a race, and she had a gender.”)
While I was one of two black American critics covering Cannes (out of 4,000 press-accredited delegates), I did meet a few other black journalists, one from London and one from Paris. The Frenchman and I ended up sitting near each other, dead center, during the Spike Lee press screening, the only two black people in the audience. By the end of the film, which included news footage of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville last year, we were slumped in our seats. Was it from the power of the themes or the disappointment in the execution? For me, it was the latter.
In the film, John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s using a telephone line, and a white Jewish coworker, played by Adam Driver, as his avatar. Many of the white Klansmen in BlacKkKlansman reminded me of the broad portrayals of midwestern life in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—as if they were written by an outsider who had never been to the middle of the country. The exception is David Duke, played in an attractive and twerpy way by Topher Grace, genuinely creepy in his innocuousness. Aside from this brilliant casting coup, and an always excellent Driver, the film seems one-note and superficial, like a Saturday Night Live sketch, or more accurately like something from Key and Peele. Jordan Peele was the film’s producer, and the film can at times feel like an uneasy slapdash of two auteurs’ styles. (Lee and his writing partner came on later to Peele’s project, adding their take to an already completed script written by two other men.)
Of course, even Lee’s best films are uneven, often a sign of their powerful ambiguity. But unlike Bamboozled or even his more recent Chi-Raq, this film had none of their shocking truths or formal energy and inventiveness. This film, instead, is two hours of a cartoonish ’70s style (much of it reminded me of the Owen Wilson remake of Starsky & Hutch—not a compliment). It’s a long setup leading to one (admittedly very good) joke, where Washington finally reveals that Duke has been bonding with a black man. The standing ovation the film received seemed to be not in applause of this reveal, though, but for the news footage postscript, reminding viewers that there is a cartoonish racist in the White House right now. But do we really need reminding? Lee seems to think so, inserting MAGA allusions throughout the film’s running time.
Another disappointment was the new Whitney Houston documentary by Scottish director Kevin MacDonald. This one is called Whitney, and it follows the exploitative style of the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy. MacDonald shapes the story of Houston’s drug addiction and death around the new revelation that she was allegedly sexually abused by her cousin. This seems too simple, more concerned with the structure of the documentary than with revealing truths about Houston. At one point in the film, a Harlem preacher mentions how important Houston was to Black America, but MacDonald focuses on the spectacle of this church praying for her rather than following up this statement. Houston was the proto-Beyoncé, unapologetically black, while being sold as the patriotic black princess white America loved. Did Houston also feel split in two, as Aïssa Maïga described? Was her suffering political as well as psychological? Was her depression tied to racism and sexism? Kevin MacDonald is clearly not the right person to ask that. But by the end of an uncomfortable experience at this edition of the Cannes Film Festival, I was certainly asking myself these questions.