You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
The above statement was courtesy of President Donald J Trump, 2 days after white supremacist James Fields, Jr used his Dodge Challenger to mow down a group of counter-protestors marching in the street, killing Heather Hayer and injuring several others. This weekend was the one year anniversary of that fateful “Unite the Right” rally where a group of white people protested the dismantling of a statue of traitor Robert E. Lee, who led an army to take over the US government and maintain an economic system of slavery.
Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses. – Rage Against The Machine, 1992
It’s only been almost 3 years since Chi-Raq was a bafflingly-timed polemic focusing on intracultural gangland violence when black people were being killed by police with little consequence. Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York were killed in 2014. All this was happening and Spike was focused on gang violence? The loud response was “what the hell is wrong with you?”
A lot has changed in those 3 years. In December 2015, Donald Trump was a racist bad joke of a nominee in the Republican Clown Car presidential primaries of 2016, Bernie Sanders was the rallying cry of the desperate trying to make themselves heard over the corporations, and Hillary Clinton was practically being crowned President before the primaries were even held. 11 months later, Donald Trump would win the presidency. 13 months later, he would be sworn in as President of the United States. 20 months later, after a series of clashes between the new ascendancy of American white supremacists and anti-fascist protesters, Charlottesville would expose the America’s racist rot in viral full color. On the anniversary of those riots, Spike releases BLACKkKLANSMAN, a film soaked in rage at the state of the system and the ironies of parallel language and culture.
Spike Lee’s new joint opens with an extended scene from Gone With The Wind where slave-owning Scarlett O’Hara is stepping over hundreds of bodies of injured or dead soldiers, soldiers who were fighting for slavery, to take away one of the few doctors helping them because her slave owning cousin is giving birth. Quickly following that is edits of Birth of A Nation overlaid with Alec Baldwin giving an idiotically hammy performance as a 1950s white supremacist making a white power educational video.
The epilogue of BLACKkKLANSMAN is a montage of white power incidents, mostly video of Charlottesville, intercut with Donald Trump making thinly-veiled white supremacist statements, including the above comment. If we removed the 2 hour movie between these statements, Spike is linking Hollywood’s white supremacy in the 1910’s (The Birth of A Nation), the 1930’s (Gone With The Wind), and the 1950’s (educational videos) to the modern day incarnation (Donald Trump). The 2-hour movie between throws in Hollywood racism in the 1970s (Blaxploitation and Rogue Cop movies).
BLACKkKLANSMAN is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs police officer who led an underground investigation into the local chapter of the KKK by joining himself. Ron was the first black police officer in Colorado Springs by a department trying to project their integration and progressive beliefs; ironically, Ron’s first job as an undercover agent was to infiltrate a speech given by former prime minister of the Black Panther Party, Kwame Ture (fka Stokley Carmichael) to make sure that Ture’s Black Power messaging wasn’t resonating with the good black citizens of Colorado Springs.
The rest of the movie plays out like a cross between a Blaxploitation and a Rogue Cop movie from the 1970s. Ron, with his clean cut afro, goes rogue with Ron Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in investigating the KKK and thwarting plans to burn crosses and bomb the black student union. They get guff from the chief of police as Ron dates Patrice (Laura Harrier) the empowered president of the Black Student Union he met while he was undercover. The KKK is portrayed as a bunch of angry or stupid rednecks; except for the perpetually lonely and doofy David Duke, then-Grand Wizard of the KKK and then-future politician.
The first of Spike’s goals is to inundate the audience with the true nature of American racism. Unlike Green Room, which used skinheads as a threat in the modern age without acknowledging the casual racism, Spike allows the casual racism, antisemitism and homophobia to roll out of these characters’ mouthes for much of the running time. The Klan members talk about killing, raping, and torturing people with as much normalcy as you would order a pizza. What seems shocking at first eventually has a numbing effect where the racism rolls off the back of the brain.
Much like the title where two diametrically opposed realities are linked together by racism, much of BLACKkKLANSMAN contains opposing realities fighting with each other. Ron’s girlfriend Patrice is fundamentally opposed to the police after their history of slaughtering black bodies. Where Ron sees empowerment and opportunity, Patrice sees systemic racism and defeat. Ron insists that he can dismantle racism from the inside; Patrice argues that he’ll be a cog in the system used to perpetuate the racism of the police.
Similarly, there is a strain of antisemitism that bled into the African American community of old, and yet Ron’s partner in Spike’s version of this KKK investigation, Flip Zimmerman (non-Jewish Adam Driver), is a Jewish man who always passed himself off as white until he had to confront the KKK’s antisemitism head on. The two communities are linked by a genetic makeup that differs from that of the white supremacists, somehow fueling white rage.
Though Spike was forced to create Flip in his own image and used that character to interrogate the relationship between the black and the Jewish community, Spike completely ignores another community frequently targeted by the KKK: the gays. In the real life investigation, Ron and “Chuck” (Flip’s unknown real life identity) thwart a plot to bomb a local gay bar. Though the black and the gay community have frequently had some words lobbed at each other, Spike did not take this opportunity to open that can of worms.
Spike’s centerpiece is a masterful cross-cut between David Duke giving a white supremacist speech to rally up Klan members and Harry Belefonte as Jerome Turner rallying the energy of the Black Student Union. Duke shows the fictitious The Birth of A Nation to anger the white people while Turner uses the real life lynching of Jesse Washington. It’s a mid-movie execution of the interaction between the prologue and epilogue: white supremacists use Gone With The Wind while Spike uses the murder of Heather Heyer.
Spike’s BLACKkKLANSMAN is still a movie at war with itself. A black man in America can’t just be American and can’t just be black; he has to be fully conscious of both states of being. Similarly, BLACKkKLANSMAN can’t just be a pro-police polemic given Eric Garner and Michael Brown, so it includes the systemic racism within the force marked by a chief who turns blind eyes and a markedly racist fellow officer. Yet, Spike hasn’t yet dared to take a hard look at why police are so reviled in many communities: by protecting the white supremacist rallies from the antifa counter-protesters or by the police killing unarmed black people and being used as a force to harass people of color living their lives,
Spike is dismantling Trump’s “Both Sides” statements by making a movie about both sides. He parallels white power and black power groups. At the end of the movies, racism hasn’t been defeated, shown by another Klan-based cross burning. His true goal is to point out that racism is the toxic enemy yesterday and today. To move on from it, Spike believes we need to dismantle the racist people in the present while acknowledging the racist past and still recognizing that non-racist white people do exist (like Heather Hayer) even in an era that elected the Dog Whistle President, Donald Trump. On the other hand, considering that police have their aim at protecting the haves from the have nots – which, in American society is the wealthier whites from everybody else – is a cop movie really the right vehicle to convey this message considering Spike barely acknowledges their complicity?