Brow Beat

BlacKkKlansman Shows How Spike Lee Makes Movies That Are at Once Timely and Timeless

The filmmaker rips from the headlines, but the struggles remain the same.

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing and Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman.
Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing and Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Focus Features.

After years of films that left many yearning for a return to form, BlacKkKlansman reacquaints us with Spike Lee’s uncanny ability to make movies that are simultaneously of the moment and timeless. In this film, Lee’s best in years, characters say seemingly anachronistic things like “America first” and “make America great again” that are in fact not anachronistic at all because white supremacists have been uniting under those banners for decades. Then, in a bold move, Lee ends with a montage of footage from the “Unite the Right” rally held last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. One might think it unwise to anchor a film in a contemporaneous hot-button issue, that such a choice might make a film seem dated when viewed years later. But a closer look at Lee’s filmography reveals a history of situating recent incidents of racial injustice within a centuries-long system of racialized inequality and violence.

I initially noticed Lee’s “ripped from the headlines” approach to filmmaking during my senior year of high school, in March of 1999. This was when I first watched Do the Right Thing, and it changed how I thought about movies. In February of that year, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed by four NYPD officers who mistook him for a suspect in a sexual assault that happened the year before. They thought the wallet he pulled out to identify himself was a weapon and opened fire, shooting at him 41 times, killing him on site. He was unarmed. The nation was in an uproar over the senseless killing, and watching Radio Raheem strangled at the end of Do the Right Thing by New York’s Finest was an emotionally devastating experience. The film informed me that Diallo’s shooting was not the first of its kind. It was, in fact, just the latest in a vicious tradition of violence against black bodies.

As timely as Do the Right Thing felt, it had been released 10 years earlier, in response to the death of Michael Stewart by police chokehold. In fact, you can hear bystanders in the crowd shouting things like “they did it again—just like Michael Stewart.” Another person in the crowd shouts “Eleanor Bumpurs, murder,” calling the name of a black woman who was shot and killed by the police in 1984. The film was responding to an incident that happened 15 years before I first saw it, but the narrative still felt all too relevant. Fifteen years later, I watched it again, and I was once again taken aback by how the climactic scene could have just as easily been responding to the death of Eric Garner. The point wasn’t lost on Lee, either. He underlined it when he edited together videos of the two deaths by asphyxiation at the hands of the NYPD.

This, and BlacKkKlansman, are just two examples of how Lee, at his best, uses the medium of film to show how little things have changed for black Americans. At the end of Lee’s title sequence for the 1995 film Clockers, he includes a headline about the real-life 1994 shooting of 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr., a black boy who was playing with a plastic toy gun in a Brooklyn stairwell when he was shot and killed by a NYPD police officer—an incident that prefigured the Nov. 22, 2014, shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. (Rice was carrying an airsoft gun replica.) Lee might not have known how neatly and tragically history would repeat itself, but he was apparently confident enough that the headline would remain relevant.

It is often in his title sequences that Lee makes these connections. In the opening credits of his magnum opus, the 1992 film Malcolm X, Denzel Washington’s Malcolm preaches over footage of the infamous Rodney King beating, which had happened just the year before the film’s release. In putting that speech and those images together, Lee connects the overt racism about which X is speaking in the 1950s or 1960s to the acts of violence that persisted in the 1990s.

In the opening of his 1996 film Get on the Bus, the credits are interspersed with images of a black man in iron shackles, and upon first glance, it is difficult to tell whether the film is set in 1996 or 1796. However, as the narrative begins, we realize that images we saw were preparing us for a contemporary story about a young man in chains because he is ensnared in what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow, a system that disproportionately imprisons black men and women. Indeed, the plot itself is about 1995’s Million Man March, an event largely inspired by the fact that 1963’s March on Washington wasn’t enough to bring full equality.

What will it feel like to watch BlacKkKlansman—with its cries of “America first,” its calls to “make America great again,” and its footage of violent, white supremacist rallies—20 years from now? We can hope it will feel dated, but as BlacKkKlansman argues, and the previous three decades of Lee’s movies have taught us, it’s likely to feel as pertinent as ever. Time may pass, but the struggle against racism in America remains largely the same.