When he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Roger Ebert said that movies are “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” Going to the movies, Ebert explained, allowed him to “walk in somebody else’s shoes” and “see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class.”
This is a beautiful sentiment with one major flaw: It only works when a filmmaker has empathy for his or her subject. If they don’t, that power can be used just as quickly and just as effectively to spread hatred and disunity. A movie is only as honorable as the intentions of the person who made it.
Spike Lee’s terrific new movie BlacKkKlansman repeatedly reminds us of this fact by inserting clips from old films into its story — most frequently and pointedly D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s hugely influential silent epic broke new ground in the realm of cinematic storytelling. We wouldn’t have movies as we know them today without D.W. Griffith and The Birth of the Nation.
We also might not have the Ku Klux Klan — who happen to be the villains of Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which is based on a true story of a black cop who managed to go undercover in the KKK. By repeatedly showing scenes from The Birth of a Nation, and then by co-opting its most famous technological advance, Lee is able to use one of the most racist movies in Hollywood history to fight racism in modern times.
In its own time, The Birth of a Nation was essentially the world’s first blockbuster. It’s estimated that Birth of a Nation grossed tens of millions of dollars in the 1910s, when tickets cost a fraction of what they do today. The Birth of a Nation was also one of the first films ever screened at the White House, although the famous story of President Woodrow Wilson comparing its impact to “writing history with lightning” is almost certainly apocryphal.
Regardless, Griffith’s movie, which is set in the years before, during, and after the Civil War, became a popular sensation. Much of its power comes from Griffith’s use of editing techniques. He was particularly famous for his development of something called “parallel editing,” in which two different storylines in two different locations happening at the same time are intercut. The effect ratchets up the tension in both stories, and can have additional emotional and psychological impact on the viewer depending on how it’s used. This excerpt of a video essay on Birth of a Nation goes in to a little more detail about parallel editing, and shows you some examples of its use in the film:
Griffith’s use of parallel editing in The Birth of a Nation’s final scenes was unlike anything movie audiences had seen before, creating enormous dramatic stakes as a group of heroes are riding to the rescue of a damsel in distress. The sequence was revolutionary — and incredibly racist. The characters riding to the rescue were from the Ku Klux Klan, and the woman they were saving was menaced by a repulsive caricature of a black man (played by a white actor in blackface).
The Birth of a Nation’s bravura techniques brought down the house, and encouraged viewers to cheer for the Ku Klu Klan as they marched through the South. No wonder the film directly inspired the rise of a new Klan, decades after the one dramatized in the film had died out; the movie’s long final act was essentially a cutting-edge piece of white supremacist propaganda.
Despite the film’s unambiguous racism, The Birth of a Nation remains a film-school staple; I watched it at New York University in the mid-2000s. Spike Lee watched The Birth of a Nation when he went to NYU decades earlier. Shocked and disgusted by its content, he was inspired to create a short called The Answer, about a black director who’s hired to direct a remake of Griffith’s film. It nearly got him kicked out of school. According to Lee:
At NYU they showed the film, talked about the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with … well, they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched. The faculty took it like I was attacking the father of cinema, so they [tried to kick] me out.
BlacKkKlansman is far from Lee’s first feature to tackle Hollywood’s legacy of perpetuating racist stereotypes; by the time I got to NYU, the faculty showed Lee’s biting 2000 satire Bamboozled alongside movies by Griffith. But BlacKkKlansman’s subject matter makes it an especially fruitful place for Lee to skewer The Birth of a Nation. Lee’s movie follows rookie Colorado Springs cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK. He finds a personal ad in the newspaper and calls the number, pretending to be an aspiring hatemonger. Then he has a fellow cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), play “Ron Stallworth” when he goes to meet the Klan members in person.
Eventually, the real Stallworth begins carrying on phone conversations with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace); when Driver’s fake Stallworth earns enough of the local Klan’s trust to be admitted into their ranks, Duke flies out to Colorado to attend his induction ceremony. And that’s where Lee’s most clever filmmaking choices really begin.
While the KKK inducts Driver’s Stallworth and celebrates with a rowdy screening of The Birth of a Nation, a group of black college students across town listen to a story told by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). He describes witnessing the lynching of a black man around the time Griffith’s film was first released. (The story Belafonte tells is a real incident too.) Lee repeatedly cuts back and forth between the Klan cheering on the “heroes” of The Birth of a Nation and the African American activists absorbing Turner’s horrifying story. You can get a small taste of what Lee does in the BlacKkKlansman trailer:
As the scene unfolded, I initially found it a little confusing. Cross-cutting can create connections and sometimes even equivalences between groups, and at first I struggled to see the connection that Lee was making. The Klansmen preach hate. The black activists preach equality; “all power to all people,” is their frequent refrain.
The end of BlacKkKlansman reveals the full scope of Lee’s ingenious plan. (This, I suppose qualifies as a minor spoiler for the film, although it has been discussed at length in many of the reviews of the film.) After the Stallworth plot concludes, Lee segues into a montage of news and cell phone footage from the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to the death of a counterprotester named Heather Heyer. Lee also includes excerpts from President Trump’s notorious press conference after the rally, when he said there was blame on “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville and claimed that there were “very fine people” marching with the neo-Nazis.
Putting the KKK and the black activists side-by-side in BlacKkKlansman destroys the idea that both sides are full of “very fine people.” We see in real time as one side mourns a senseless murder and the other celebrates the conditions and values that led to that murder. And doing it with Griffith’s vaunted parallel editing— while the Klan is watching The Birth of a Nation no less! — is a brilliant sort of artistic revenge.
I wasn’t fully enamored with all of Lee’s choices in BlacKkKlansman. Occasionally, I felt like the cop story was a little underbaked, propelled along by too many coincidences and dei ex machina. But using Griffith’s movie against itself and deploying the same technique that helped create the Klan to expose its bigotry is an incendiary climax to rival anything Griffith ever achieved. For all the good film has done in this world, it also has some things to answer for. BlacKkKlansman returns a small amount of cinema’s power to all the people.
Gallery – Great Movies That Inexplicably Got Zero Oscar Nominations: