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BLACKKKLANSMAN – Terence Blanchard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Spike Lee doesn’t make subtle movies. He never has. He makes films about race and politics and social injustices and relationships and American life, and then hammers the point home, so that even the most culturally unaware viewer will be left with no doubt as to what his film is saying and – more importantly – why we need to listen. Films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Jungle Fever established his credentials as an important filmmaker, while films like Inside Man, 25th Hour, and He Got Game cemented his box office potential. His latest film, Blackkklansman, is the first Spike Lee joint in quite some time to combine commercial success with a major cultural statement, and it has become a significant talking point in a year where race and politics have become vitally important in American society. The film tells the embellished but mostly true story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who successfully leads an investigation to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a white supremacist – at least on the phone – while a white Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman, stands in for him when the time comes for Ron to meet the Klan in person. The film stars John David Washington and Adam Driver as the cops leading the charge; they are ably supported by Laura Harrier as Ron’s student activity girlfriend Patrice, Topher Grace as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, and Ryan Eggold and Jasper Pääkkönen as local Klan members, with powerful cameos from Corey Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, and Harry Belafonte.

What makes Blackkklansman work is how deftly Lee blends surreal, wry comedy with a genuine sense of danger, and how he clearly ties these historical events to the current American political climate. The comedy initially comes from the situation – a black man and a Jew loudly proclaiming their hatred of niggers and kikes is patently absurd from the outset – but also the fact that, for the most part, the KKK members are portrayed as stupid rednecks who are all talk and no action; some of Washington’s reactions to their rhetoric are priceless. But there is an undercurrent of real menace too, embodied mostly by Jasper Pääkkönen’s Felix, an unblinking true believer with a hair trigger temper and a streak of violent insanity that clearly intimidates other Klan members just as much as anyone else. Cleverly, Lee juxtaposes the Klan’s dedication to ‘white power’ with intercut scenes of Black Power rallies featuring emotional speeches from African American leaders that expose years – no, decades – of systematic injustice. Some are rightfully angry, while others are bitterly sad. And then, having peppered his screenplay with clear references to ‘America first’ and ‘make America great again,’ Lee literally plays his Trump card in the finale by showing footage of the terrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – literal Nazis in the streets, mowing people down with cars, “very fine people on both sides,” and the real David Duke 40 years later stating his intent to fulfill the president’s promise in the way he believes it was meant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As the son of a jazz musician, Spike Lee has always had a close relationship with music, and this translates into his films. His most frequent collaborator over the years has been composer Terence Blanchard, who has composed the music for every Lee film since Jungle Fever in 1991. Despite being a trumpet virtuoso and a jazz specialist, Blanchard’s music for Lee’s films is eclectic and widely divergent, and often includes some spectacular works for full orchestra – my favorites include Malcolm X, Clockers, 25th Hour, and Miracle at St. Anna. Blackkklansman continues that trend, and may well be my new favorite Lee-Blanchard collaboration to date. It’s a score which blends 1970s jazz and funk sounds with more traditional orchestral strings befitting a classic thriller, all built around a memorable recurring main theme for the Ron Stallworth character that receives several stirring statements and clever variations, plus a couple of smaller recurring ideas which weave in and out of the score at regular intervals.

The score actually opens with “Gone With the Wind,” which is not based on Max Steiner’s score but is instead a big full orchestral piece which blends together two classic songs of the south – Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” better known as ‘Suwannee River,’ and the ‘Look Away’ part of Daniel Decatur Emmett’s “Dixie”. It plays over one of the film’s opening scenes, which shows footage from the classic 1939 movie in which Scarlett O’Hara stumbles through a train yard full of wounded soldiers while the Confederate flag flutters high in the breeze.

After this opening the score then presents is key thematic ideas sequentially, the first of which are the White Power theme and the Main Theme. Although they are presented separately, Blanchard clearly has it in mind that they are linked, both musically and conceptually, as throughout the score they seem to play off each other, informing the narrative as they develop. What’s most clever about them is the way Blanchard uses the themes to convey so many different moods and depict the varying faces of racism. In “Hatred at Its Best,” for example, the music is soft, warm, and unexpectedly gentle, leaning on writing for piano, strings, and harp to convey a mood of almost benign domesticity – racism served by a cheerful housewife with a side of cheese dip. These ideas are explored further in “No Cross Burning Tonight,” in which Blanchard somehow manages to get himself into the point of view of the KKK and wax nostalgic about the old days of lynchings and intimidation tactics. It says something extraordinary about Blanchard’s talent as a composer, and his understanding of the film’s narrative requirements, that he can take such an abhorrent concept and make it seem almost appealing.

The subsequent “Main Theme” introduces a guitar and a drum kit into the orchestra, while the darkness in the strings gives the whole thing an off-kilter vibe, with sinister, moody chord progressions that remind me of something Carter Burwell or Howard Shore might have written for a film like this. Subsequent cues like “Connie and the Bomb,” “Woodrow Wilson,” and “Klan Cavalry” explore these ideas more deeply, often with an increased brass presence, while the final statement of the “White Power Theme” is grandly oppressive, with hugely ominous orchestral chords dominating the cue.

However, the cornerstone of the score is “Ron’s Theme,” a wonderful piece of orchestral funk built around a recurring 7-note motif that changes its lead instrument as the circumstances dictate. In its first appearance it is passed around across various woodwinds, augmented by pizzicato strings, bass guitars, vibraphone, and percussion; it’s wry, a little introverted, even perhaps a little comedic. However, as it develops through the score, it seems to want to adopt a tone similar to the scores from some of the classic Blaxploitation films that are discussed during the movie – Isaac Hayes’s Shaft, Roy Ayers’s Coffy, Willie Hutch’s Foxy Brown, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and J. J. Johnson’s Cleopatra Jones, among them. In “Firing Range,” which underscores the disturbing scene where Ron discovers metal targets shaped like old stereotypical ‘runaway slaves’ deep in the woods, his theme is played on brass and electric guitar accompanied by abstract orchestral textures and dark piano chords.
Later, in “Patrice Library,” Ron’s theme is arranged as a romantic piece for the developing relationship between Ron and Patrice, featuring some especially beautiful writing for piano and flute, and electric guitar phrasing that may remind some people of 1980s Michael Kamen. In “Ron Meets FBI Agent” the theme is confident, almost swaggering, with prominent writing for electric guitar, contrapuntal strings, bold brass, and jazz flute. Eventually, by the time we get to “Ron’s Search” and “Here Comes Ron,” the theme is in full-on hero mode, and is being performed at its funkiest, most aggressive, and most propulsive, with thrumming wakka-wakka guitars and valiant horns.

It’s also worth mentioning the sequence that begins with “Guarding David Duke” – a militaristic cue full of snappy snare drums and martial brass – and continues on through the three “Tale of Two Powers” cues. This sequence underscores the powerful cross-cut scenes that jump back and forth between Flip’s (fake) induction into the KKK, and the powerful speech given by ageing civil rights activist Jerome Turner (played by Harry Belafonte) to a group of wide-eyed young black students. As Turner tells terrible stories of rapes, murders, and lynchings carried out by whites on blacks, Duke and KKK members at Flip’s induction whoop and holler in glee while watching D. W. Griffith’s 1915 pro-Klan film Birth of a Nation; Blanchard captures the raw emotion of the piece not with orchestral histrionics but with lyrical, but dark piano chords offset by elegant woodwind phrasing, pizzicato strings, low brass, and hints at Ron’s theme. What’s interesting is that both parties end up with chants about power – black power, white power – but the contrast in meaning could not be more different.

The final two cues are “Main Theme – Ron,” which features a laid back, suave, mellow version of Ron’s theme for a lazy electric guitar, and “Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil),” which gives Ron’s theme a superb expansive statement, but augments it with the anguished-sounding Carter Burwell-esque brass chord progressions from the Main theme, the militaristic snare drums from the David Duke cue, and a vibrant and expressive guitar performance. The fact that Blanchard and Lee chose to call this final cue Blut Und Boden is important because this chant was a common expression used in nineteenth-century Germany to espouse Nazi ideology, and it was heard again just last year at the Charlottesville rally, footage of which is shown at the conclusion of the film. To hammer home the drama of those events in Virginia in 2017 Lee chose to re-purpose the cue “Photo Ops” that Blanchard wrote for his 2006 film Inside Man – a dark, menacing orchestral piece that underscores the Charlottesville footage with the appropriate power and weightiness.

In purely musical terms, Blackkklansman is an excellent score; Blanchard has always been a superb musician and composer, and the way he blends elements of jazz and funk with classic orchestral lines in this instance is commendable. The main theme for Ron Stallworth is memorable, and the way he blends this theme with other ideas representing KKK ideology to create an intelligent dramatic framework and architecture for the score as a whole is very good indeed. But, more than that, I have a feeling that this score will go on to have a slightly greater cultural impact than a ‘regular’ film score; just like Michael Abels did with his ‘Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga’ Swahili chant for Get Out last year, and like Ludwig Göransson’s score for Black Panther did back in the spring, I think it’s entirely possible that Terence Blanchard’s music for Blackkklansman will come to be a defining musical representation of African American cinema in 2018, and if the film itself gains some traction, I could see it being in the Academy Awards Best Score conversation next year.

Buy the Blackkklansman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Gone With the Wind (1:01)
  • Hatred at Its Best (2:37)
  • Main Theme (1:01)
  • Ron’s Theme (1:26)
  • Firing Range (1:33)
  • No Cross Burning Tonight (3:11)
  • Patrice Library (1:33)
  • Ron Meets FBI Agent (1:55)
  • Connie and the Bomb (1:17)
  • Guarding David Duke (0:57)
  • Tale of Two Powers 1 (2:41)
  • Tale of Two Powers 2 (2:21)
  • Tale of Two Powers 3 (1:44)
  • Woodrow Wilson (0:21)
  • Klan Cavalry (0:45)
  • Ron’s Search (1:05)
  • Patrice Followed (1:26)
  • Here Comes Ron (0:45)
  • White Power Theme (0:44)
  • Partner Funk Theme (0:40)
  • Main Theme – Ron (1:23)
  • Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil) (3:41)
  • Photo Ops (from ‘Inside Man’) (3:39)

Running Time: 37 minutes 46 seconds

Back Lot Music (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Terence Blanchard. Orchestrations by Terence Blanchard and Howard Drossin. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes. Edited by Marvin Morris. Album produced by Terence Blanchard.

  1. Bronskrat
    October 27, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    I disagree. The orchestral/pop score sounded dated like something out of the 90s. It sounded like it was from Now You See Me or Oceans 11. Either way, it totally did not fit the look or mood of this film. I’m generally a fan of Blanchard, but this time he completely missed the mark which is sad for such a good film.

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