I saw Spike Lee’s latest movie, BlacKkKlansman, last night, and I have thoughts. (Spoilers ahead! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film, and if you haven’t seen it, do Netflix and chill with it.)
My interest is not in the movie as an artistic achievement. I’m not really qualified to judge it in those terms. In my untutored view, Spike Lee is really good at the technical side of making movies. I mean cinematography, editing, and music. As a writer, his dialogue is often very good as well. Otherwise, the content from one film to the next is more open to critique. At any rate, this film’s politics are my subject.
To cut to the chase, as a movie-watching experience the film is a pretty ordinary cops-vs-racists deal. As agit-prop, however, it is by turns engrossing and electrifying. I don’t mean to diminish it. By my lights, there is nothing wrong with a great propaganda vehicle, especially if it’s for causes I favor.
The racists in the film – Klansmen, including their national leader, David Duke – are caricatured as completely deluded, ignorant, vicious clowns. They are all fat, dumb, and ugly. There are two ways to take this. On the one hand, the underlying ideology deserves all the scorn that can be put upon it. On the other, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the enemy. Duke, for instance, is a much more imposing figure in real life than the pencil-necked Topher Grace could manage in the film.
There are hints in the film of the Klan’s ambitions to mainstream itself, but because the members are shown in such reduced terms, it is difficult to see this emerging from the withered roots on display. By contrast, the film’s inclusion of modern news footage at the close confirms that this is indeed what has happened. The problem is the gulf between point A – the setting of the film – and point B – the current United States of America. How did we get here from there? The film can’t tell us.
One facet of the bifurcation is the depiction of the Colorado Springs police force. Now by the testimony of the real protagonist in this story – police detective Ron Stallworth, whose memoir is the source – said depiction is accurate. Stallworth’s initiative in investigating the Klan was supported by his superiors and colleagues. Bully for them. But this is not a documentary.
Some events, including the climax to the story, are pure fiction. The decision over what truths to show and what story elements to dream up remains the choice of the auteur. The benign image of the police in the Lee’s movie may be true to the particular, real events upon which the film is based, but it is not true to the reality of law enforcement in America today. Not a few white police officers are aligned with the very same forces whose germination is targeted in this film. In short, today the cops need a lot of work in the field of race relations.
To his credit, Lee doesn’t shrink from contradiction entirely. Perhaps the central one in the film is the dilemma of a black police officer being sent to infiltrate local civil rights agitation, when he isn’t getting after the Klan. To emphasize this problem, Lee ingeniously invents a romance between the officer and the leader of a local Black Student Union. (In reality, Stallworth had a German girlfriend.)
Near the close of the film, when Stallworth’s membership in the police force is exposed, and notwithstanding his heroic role in destroying the local Klan organization, she rejects him for aligning with the enemy pigs. At the same time, the threat of a cross-burning outside their apartment brings them together in armed unity. There is a scene of the pair of them, each pointing pistols at the camera, floating almost ethereally towards the window.
The truth is, the radical politics on display here are pretty lame. The police are the pigs and Black is beautiful. Sure. There is one bit of a speech by Stokely Carmichael, which is just a string of clichés. Now back in the day I heard Stokely speak myself, and although I didn’t care for his politics, he was much deeper than his namesake in Lee’s film.
I do have to say at one point in the film, the members of the Black Student Union plus their police infiltrator are dancing and singing in a bar, to the sound of the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose (“Too Late to Turn Back Now”). The scene does go on for the better part of the song. Lee wants to say, these were my people, beautiful and graceful, who deserved better than they got. My late wife could have been one of them. Imagine seeing your spouse at age 19, dancing, being happy. It was sweet.
Another affecting aspect for me is Lee’s invention of Stallworth’s alter ego ‘Flip’ (short for Philip), the cop drafted to stand in for Stallworth when a personal appearance at a Klan gathering is required, as a Jew. He is played by Adam Driver, whom I had been ignoring since I first saw him in an episode of Girls (I’ve only ever watched part of that one episode). He didn’t stand out much in the newer Star Wars either, though I’m not much into Star Wars since it became a brand more than a movie serial. I’ve decided Driver is a damn good actor.
Lee’s Flip is secular and barely ever thought about his roots until his Klan infiltration. The anti-Semitism of the Klan makes him think more about those roots, something which most Jews have experienced now and again. The Klan’s historic anti-Semitism (among other prejudices) was a fact.
At various points in the film, assorted bits of Trump rhetoric crop up. One that caught my notice was the Klan’s espousal of “America First.” I thought it was a bit of a stretch. Of course, all students of U.S. anti-Semitism know the origins of the slogan in Charles Lindbergh’s 1930s campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II. But for the Colorado Klan of the 1960s, as one reviewer pointed out, it turns out to be accurate as well.
The film closes with news footage of the president and the contemporary “alt-right,” better understood as modern neo-Nazis, highlighting their recent offenses in Charlottesville, Va. It effectively knits together the Black Klansman tale with our present dangers.
At bottom, the politics of Black Klansman hardly verge beyond liberal/anti-racist/anti-anti-Semitic. Its view of law enforcement is roughly benign. It is hard-core anti-Trump, though not especially anti-conservative. It’s obvious why it was a success with Hollywood.
More significant, I would say, is that it brings, or should I say returns, Jews to the civil rights struggle and signals the emerging common interests of people of color, Jews, Muslims, and everyone of non-standard sexual orientation or identity.
We still have some way to go for a genuinely epic, radical film. Lee got closer with his Malcolm X. Why hasn’t anybody ever done the story of Toussaint Louverture? That’s a hell of a fucking story. There are others.