The BlacKkKlansman Mixtape
As part of the pre-production for BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee asked two of his leading actors, John David Washington and Laura Harrier, to watch Göran Olsson’s documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, containing archive footage and interviews of many of the leaders of the Black Power Movement in the United States. The use of the term mix tape by Olsson in the title of his film is an allusion both to the compiled archives and also the power and influence that music had in supporting and illustrating the battles of the Civil Rights movement.
Lee uses a similar thought process in his choice of music in BlacKkKlansman, one that is largely designed to echo the action on screen. The tracks support the themes of the drama, the efforts of the police to shut down the Black Panther and Civil Rights movement at the time, the division of people along race lines and the politicisation of white supremacy.
There is no mistaking the message in the James Brown funk classic, 'Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.' The 1968 song is a call for black empowerment, an anthem for those tired of subjugation and waiting for the oppressor to change their ways. Lee echoes this sentiment in a scene in which Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) reminds a student body that black is beautiful.
This choice of this song also connects BlacKkKlansman to Radio Raheem’s boom box in Do The Right Thing bellowing out Public Enemy’s 'Fight The Power,' as band member Chuck D has stated that the Brown number convinced him to call himself black rather than negro. Music is a glue in Spike Lee joints.
The Temptations’ 'Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)' is a 1970 song that leaves no doubt about what the ills of the world are, with the repeated use of the phrase "And the Band Played On" a sign of the lack of interest from mainstream society in the problems being sung about. In some way the song is symptomatic of Lee’s oeuvre with its systematic look at racism both in society and in Hollywood and the fact that despite his yells nothing much really changes.
The film, based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, sees the first black police office in the Colorado Spring Police Department investigate the Ku Klux Klan after answering an advert in a local paper. So while a large part of the soundtrack is made of mainstream civil rights songs, Lee also uses the songs to highlight the changes taking place in the world at that time. After all, Stallworth is actually being allowed to join the police.
The use of Lucky Man by 1970s prog rock sensations Emerson, Lake and Palmer is particularly interesting. On the surface this simplistic medieval fantasy sounds like an ode to a perfect past. Yet with the last verse being about a bullet, the song became associated with President John F. Kennedy and Lee chooses this track to be playing when the tables are finally turned on a racist cop, who hitherto had been able to act with impunity.
The film ends with a previously unpublished song, Mary Don’t You Weep, by the recently departed Prince. It plays over archive footage from Charlottesville as the movie enters the modern era. It’s a change in tempo, but not in sentiment, as Mary Don’t You Weep is one of the most important songs of what scholars call ‘Slave Songs’ and was a popular resistance song in the Civil Rights Moment. Telling biblical stories it’s associated with hope and resistance.
The director’s father Bill Lee was a musician and produced the jazzy scores for several of Lee’s early movies. Historically, black filmmakers were seldom given the budget to employ philharmonic orchestras to record their scores and Lee has always liked his own scores to be loud and intrusive. Since Jungle Fever, his regular collaborator has been the legendary jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and he is here again in BlacKkKlansman.
In a movie that deconstructs two of the all time classics from the cinematic canon, The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, the importance of an Oscar worthy score becomes two-fold, one to create emotion and the other to highlight how people of colour are just as skilled in high art forms. Lee wants us to hear the score and feel the pathos, as the weightiness of the tubular sounds gives the story a foreboding even when the action on-screen is being driven by humour.
[Words by Kaleem Aftab]
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman plays in cinemas from Friday 24 August