BlacKkKlansman: Spike Lee explores racism in classic Hollywood

Spike Lee talks about why he included imagery from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind in BlacKkKlansman and how movies shape history.

This article contains mild spoilers from several sequences in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

The opening image of BlacKkKlansman is unmistakable. It is a classic moment from one of the all-time Hollywood classics: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara wades through the dead and dying of the Confederate Army, slowly realizing the sheer hopelessness of the Southern “Cause,” a cause which Gone with the Wind (1939) demurred from explicitly stating (unlike what D.W. Griffith’s love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, had done 24 years earlier). Spike Lee isn’t quite so taciturn in his new film, which is also the best Spike Lee joint in years.

After revisiting this sequence in BlacKkKlansman, Alec Baldwin makes his cameo as a Southern revisionist “scholar’ named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard. A man who uses “Dixie” and Gone with the Wind to educate viewers in the 1970s about the dangers of integration and sorrow of the Lost Cause, which is, among other things, about keeping African Americans subjugated and subservient. It is the beginning of a dialogue throughout BlacKkKlansman between history and cinema, as Lee casts his own look at history through a camera’s lens, tracing the racism of the actual Confederacy through classic Hollywood and into the KKK led by David Duke in the 1970s…. and then all the way to today where David Duke’s favorite politician occupies the White House.

When our US sister publication sat down with Lee to discuss BlacKkKlansman, they were interested to hear about how he personally views the role of movies in history.

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“I’m a tenured professor of film at New York University, where I went, and I’m also artistic director of the film school, and I’m a cinephile,” Lee says. “A lot of my films have been about how American cinema has degraded and dehumanized people. Not just black people, you can say that about women, Native Americans, gays. So in dealing with a film about the Klan, it was just natural to use D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind as examples of films that are considered some of the greatest films ever.”

Lee goes on to remember his introduction to both films in his own life, including being required as a freshman at NYU to watch Birth of a Nation where the film was lauded as being the first feature-length epic in the motion picture form… but not once was the aftermath of the film on American culture noted.

Prior to Birth of a Nation, the KKK had waned in popularity in the American South, where it began as an illegal organization meant to terrorize freed black men and women following the Civil War. But even with oppressive Jim Crow laws long in place by 1915, the release of Birth of a Nation—with its images of Klansman riding to avenge white maidens sexually assaulted by black men (played by white actors in blackface)—led to revitalized support and romanticizing of the Klan. Membership in the KKK grew exponentially, as did lynchings across the country.

“That film brought a resurface of the Klan,” Lee says. “That film was shown in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. He said it was like writing history with lightning. So directly that film, because of the resurgence of the Klan, it led to black people being murdered, lynched, castrated. That was not taught.”

It’s an effect that BlacKkKlansman fully explores in a sequence during which time the film crosscuts between its version of David Duke (Topher Grace) screening an old print of The Birth of a Nation for Klan recruits and Harry Belafonte’s Jerome Turner recalling an actual public torture and lynching that occurred after Birth of a Nation’s release.

“We wanted to have this Klan initiation to turn into a screening of the film where people are eating popcorn and cheering, and yelling.” 

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The filmmaker shows a little more deference for Gone with the Wind’s importance, noting the scene he uses to begin BlacKkKlansman is stellar filmmaking.

“I can’t front,” Lee laughs, “that’s a great shot. You crane [out] and all of a sudden the tattered stars and bars of the Confederate flag appears, we had to start with that.” He even notes it’s one of the greatest sequences in American cinema. Still, it’s one in which the melancholy of it all is over the loss of a culture where Scarlett O’Hara lives in a gilded plantation of plenty… including plenty of slaves who are depicted in the film as mostly simple-minded and entirely cheerful in their subservient roles. It’s a rose-tinted vision of an evil that haunted Lee since his earliest days.

“I’m a product of the New York public school in Brooklyn, New York from kindergarten to high school,” Lee considers. “We had a class trip to see Gone with the Wind… and those images of Hattie McDaniel [as Mammy], of Butterfly McQueen [as Prissy saying], ‘I know nothing about birthing no babies!’ That was very troubling to me. And there was no discussion about the imagery that I saw as a fourth or fifth grader in school. So I automatically thought of putting those two films in BlacKkKlansman.”

BlacKkKlansman opens in UK cinemas on 24 August.

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Special nationwide screenings + Live Satellite Q&A with Spike Lee on August 20th