Sorry to Bother You writer-director Boots Riley recently took to social media to criticize Spike Lee’s new movie BlacKkKlansman — based on the true story of a black Colorado Springs police detective’s undercover infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s — for what he perceived as the film’s pro-police message and altering of the historical record. Putting aside for the moment the validity of Riley’s complaints, it is fitting that iconoclast-turned-icon Lee should find himself being challenged by a filmmaker he helped inspire, considering his own history of publicly calling out his fellow directors.
Lee has made headlines for his spats with Clint Eastwood (over the lack of black representation in his war dramas) and Tyler Perry (for what he called the “coonery and buffoonery” in his films). In both cases he provoked angry personal responses, with Eastwood telling him to “shut his face,” and Perry saying he “can go straight to hell.” (Perry and Lee subsequently buried the hatchet.)
However, when it comes to Lee’s history of public feuding, nothing compares to his most well-known beef: The war of words he’s exchanged with Quentin Tarantino for 20 years now.
Like many rivals (Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton; Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut), Tarantino and Lee started out as mutual admirers, possibly even friends, as evidenced by Lee’s casting of Tarantino in a cameo role for his 1996 drama Girl 6. Things changed less than two years later, when Lee took umbrage with the use of the N-word throughout Tarantino’s script for Jackie Brown, saying, “Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want, to be made an honorary black man?”
Tarantino responded by asserting his artistic license to write whatever characters and dialog he feels his story demands, accusing Lee of being the racist for attempting to deny him that privilege based on his skin color. Samuel L. Jackson, a regular collaborator of both men at that point, took Tarantino’s side in the argument, saying of Jackie Brown, “This is a good film. And Spike hasn’t made one of those in a few years.”
This issue came to the fore again when Lee accused Tarantino of exploiting the trauma of slavery with his 2012 Western Django Unchained. (Django co-star Jackson, who was working with Lee for the first time since 1998 when he made the comments, once again took Tarantino’s side.) Tarantino didn’t respond at the time, but when asked three years later while promoting The Hateful Eight if he’d ever consider working with Lee again, he answered, “Never! I have two more films to direct and I will not spend any of them working with that son of a bitch. He would be very happy the day I accept to work with him. But it will not happen.”
This entire feud could be easily dismissed as the petty squabbling of two fiercely opinionated egoists (Tarantino has never shied away from publicly criticizing the work of his peers, while Lee’s confrontational nature is not limited to the silver screen), but for the irony that, as storytellers, they are on the same page.
Loath as either man would probably be to admit it, BlacKkKlansman would make a hell of a double feature with any of Tarantino’s last three films, but especially his 2009 World War II revenge drama, Inglourious Basterds. Beyond the surface-level similarities of their creatively spelled titles and their plots — both are period pieces centered on the infiltration of white nationalist organizations (German Nazis and the American Klan) by members of the races they oppose (including, in each case, Jews) — they are also both feature-length essays on the history of cinema.
Basterds sets much of its action around the premiere of the latest propaganda film from Joseph Goebbels. Throughout the course of the story, Tarantino finds several ingenious ways to look at the role of movies as propaganda during war-time, all leading to the apocalyptic finale, in which film is literally used as a weapon. We cheer the wanton slaughter of the Third Reich, only moments after having seen them cheer other slaughters. Tarantino isn’t trying to make us feel guilty over our bloodlust, nor is he attempting to elicit sympathy for the Nazis being massacred. He’s forcing us to recognize the universally transformative power of film, one that is no less powerful when wielded for malevolent purposes.
BlacKkKlansman focuses much of its attention on the part American movies have played shaping anti-black hatred and internalized racism throughout the 20th century. The examples it calls upon are numerous — from the Tarzan serials of the 1920s, to the preeminent epic of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Gone with the Wind, to the more complicated case of ‘70s Blaxploitation staples such as Shaft and Super Fly — but there is one film in particular it seeks to interrogate: D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Griffith’s film is, from a technical standpoint, the most important ever made. It ushered in the era of feature-length films and displayed a level of artistic sophistication not previously associated with the medium. It was the first blockbuster and, by way of its depiction of masked avengers delivering extrajudicial justice unto evil-doers, arguably the first superhero movie. Of course, in Griffith’s narrative, those evildoers are black Americans living in the Reconstruction-era South, and the masked avengers are the KKK.
In one of its major set pieces, BlacKkKlansman hits pause on its story-in-progress to have an aged civil rights activist (played by real-life civil rights icon Harry Belafonte) deliver a disturbing lecture to an assembly of young demonstrators about the time he witnessed a white mob, newly inspired by Birth, lynch a black man. Lee cuts between this harrowing first-person account to the film being screened for an audience of active Klan members, all of them hooting and hollering like the Nazis during the climax of Inglourious Basterds (in both cases, members of the audience will shortly meet their grisly ends in fiery explosions). The scene concludes with Belafonte quoting President Woodrow Wilson’s stunned (probably apocryphal) summation of Griffith’s epic: “like writing history with lightning.”
Whereas at the end of Inglourious Basterds Tarantino completely changes the factual record and hurls us headlong into alternate reality, Lee uses the final moments of BlacKkKlansman to drag us back to our present-day reality. But while the thematic motivation behind each may seem at cross purposes, the intent is the same: Both filmmakers break the fourth wall to present us with their own corrective to the historical record.
From the start, the filmographies of Tarantino and Lee have been chock-full of cinematic homage and reference (and even outright theft), and neither Inglourious Basterds nor BlacKkKlansman are their only treaties on the subject of movies. But with these films, each man is able to express the full weight of his reverence for cinema, a reverence that includes fear of the medium’s destructive potential as much as love of its transcendent qualities.
It really is too bad that Lee and Tarantino can’t get over their shared animus. Imagine what cinematic insights they might be able to discover if they worked together. Imagine what kind of history they could write by calling upon their combined store of lightning.