BlacKkKlansman…..a warning from history

Spike Lee's BlackKKlansman

Speaking about his film BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee said “The film was in post-production when Charlottesville happened.  Charlottesville wrote me a whole new ending”.

This is very much a recurring theme in BlacKkKlansman – film is ostensibly about some true events which occurred in the late 1970’s, but with themes which speak to us through the decades, through movements like Black Lives Matter, writes Brian Summers It is a brilliant return to form for Lee, a film full of striking juxtaposed imagery and allegory.

The film takes as its central narrative the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs police officer who, with the help of a small group of other officers, manages the remarkable feat of infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  He achieves this by “twinning” himself with another officer, Flip Zimmerman.  Stallworth handles the phone conversations but Zimmerman is the alter ego who the local Klan actually meet.  In one of many comedic moments, Stallworth calls the oblivious Klan leader David Duke, who boasts that “I can always tell if I’m talking to a black man”.

But the film offers much more than this admittedly engaging story.  Lee is consistently drawing parallels with black experience in the US of 40 years ago (indeed further back than that), and how little has really changed in the present.

Lee is a master of the visual juxtaposition, so we get an opening which is actually a famous excerpt from Gone With the Wind – the widening shot of the Confederate wounded, ending with the Stars and Bars fluttering over it.  Then we cut to the inept ranting of a racist and antisemitic white supremacist.  Later in the film Lee uses scenes from Birth of a Nation, a very mainstream film in its time, to show how black people are dehumanised and demonised in much American artistic and political discourse.  A character remarks that Woodrow Wilson put on a showing of the film at the White House.

There are constant references to the present, with Klan members chanting “America First” and a couple of cops speculating that “ folks are never gonna put anyone who believes this stuff into the White House”.

In another echo of the present we see black activists including Kwame Toure (the former Black Panther leader Stokeley Carmichael) being harassed by racist cops

The film also covers another big strand of Klan ideology – antisemitism.  Stallworth enlists the help of Zimmerman partly by challenging the latter’s denial of his Jewish heritage.

Towards the end, we hear an elderly activist Jerome Turner (played by that veteran of the civil rights movement, Harry Belafonte) give a graphic and harrowing account of a lynching of a young friend in 1914.  He recounts how white school kids were given the day off to go and see the spectacle.  Photographs of the boy’s burned and mutilated body were sold as postcards for miles around.  Powerfully, the scene is intercut with a Klan initiation ceremony in which Duke speaks of the “defence of the white race”.  It will make you cry tears of grief and rage.

The film ends with actual footage of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, chanting “white power” and “Jews will not replace us”, culminating in graphic scenes of the moment a car is driven at speed into crowds of anti racist counter demonstrators.  The film is dedicated to the memory of Heather Heyer, murdered in that attack.

As the far right reinvigorates itself in the USA, Germany and much of Europe, the messages in this film are more urgent that never.  Go see it!

2 Comments

  1. This film is entertaining, but suffused with cliche and muddled. Of course, the political message about far right racism is there, but the links between that and state, institutional racism are muddied by what at the least can be called ambiguities, like the most racist cop being presented as a “bad apple”. It’s notable that a lot of this film is fiction. It starts with Stallworth being sent to infiltrate a black power group. Such efforts were apparently his main duties and the Klan stuff was peripheral. The cut from the Klan chanting “White Power” to black militants chanting “Black Power” was particularly crass, as was the final scene before the Charlottesville scenes. The scenes of political exposition were clunky and the timing was out. We saw re- elect Nixon posters up (1972) when the events (not) depicted took place in 1979, when the black power movement had already been crushed by the state.

    The rapper Boots Riley has written a critique of the politics of the film. This is worth reading. Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You has not yet been released internationally:

    https://mobile.twitter.com/BootsRiley/status/1030575674447212544

    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jul/20/sorry-to-bother-you-boots-riley

    Lee’s response to criticism:

    https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/spike-lee-responds-to-boots-rileys-critique-of-blackkkl-1828623570

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