In response to a three-page critique of the film by Boots Riley, the first point I want to make is that labelling, categorizing, denouncing, and tearing apart a filmmaker’s entire IMDb may be cool posturing, but it is not necessarily educational for those who haven’t been exposed to Spike Lee’s entire body of work. Brother Lee has not always been the most thoughtful presenter of ideas. He dabbles and walks away. When he does not, he swings. But there is a strain in him that highlights issues that many in the Afro-American community tend to skirt around. Is he anywhere near being a James Baldwin or a Malcolm X? He would not make a size 6 if Malcolm X wore a size 12. But when it comes to mass culture, he is important – like Michael Moore – because that is where work needs to be done to de-hegemonize manufactured cultural consent. And look where identity and PC politics have taken us! The backlash feels like a roto-rotor.
The film makes high-speed probes and covers many episodes of the civil rights movement, with excellent reminders of dance and music tracks from the late sixties to the present, including Prince’s fantastic rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep, released posthumously.
BlacKkKlansman holds the promise of a spliff. A well-conceived and high-powered film that includes the Charlottesville killing of Heather Heyer suggests that Spike Lee continues to bring together a left popular (not populist) perspective on what needs to be continuously reinforced among people who have had limited exposure to the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, and the entire cultural battle against white settlerism and racism, a seething and mutating core heritage of the US – not just the Southern confederate rage against de-segregation and civil rights, but the more refined east-to-west, coast-to-coast neo-liberal consensus to maintain and reinforce a system that denies equal rights through well-thought-out official means such as voter deregistration.
The Birth of a Nation as sign on
The movie starts off brilliantly with Alec Baldwin and a snapshot from Gone with the Wind, as well as Birth of A Nation by D.W. Griffith, as grim reminders of where the roots lie, of what it was to continue to wage war against civil rights. Spike Lee has chosen a story about a Colorado Springs black undercover police officer who noses his way into a predominantly white police force, literally begging to infiltrate the local chapter of the Klansmen. Incredible!
He eventually succeeds, and that is where a new tragedy starts. He shows them up and exposes them when one of the most vicious and stupid Klansmen blows himself up accidently, possibly aided and abetted by another dimwitted white police officer and sympathizer. Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, is excellent as the black officer, showing cool reserve, poise and an enormously wicked (but often naïve) sense of humour.
The film unfortunately makes too many forays into caricature – caricatures of black imagery from the ‘60s and ‘70s: beehives, Afros, bellbottoms, African jewellery, strutting heels and, of course, music that’s just unforgettable. But there’s vacuousness in the language that is spoken. That is the start of caricature.
Stokely Carmichael, less well known as Kwame Ture, was one of the greatest speakers in the Black Power movement. He worked on the audience with facts instead of empty rhetoric. If his words had been used in the film followed by a speech from H. Rap Brown, I would have felt better. However, Spike Lee chooses not to educate, and makes a caricature of Stokely Carmichael. Kwame Ture is played by an uninspiring Corey Hawkins – dull and uncharismatic. As a director and scriptwriter, Spike Lee knew he had creative license, but lost focus in that area. The depth that Kwame Ture spoke to is reflected in his speech beginning with: “Thank you very much. It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West.” Speakers who educate are important during these times, and focusing on slogans and posturing does not help as much as facts and figures from the past.
This movie fails to separate the informed and the educational from the rhetoric – it ribs too far in self-absorbed humour and plunges into the superficial anger that often seems to attract Spike Lee. Unfortunately for him, it was right at that time that the Black Power movement started its fight against black capitalism, the Vietnam War, and the imperial history of the United States following Hiroshima. Spike Lee did a good job with the movie he made on Malcolm X in the ‘nineties. However, in BlacKkKlansman, he misrepresents the Black Consciousness movement. Quite comically, I would say.
What this movie does, though, is that it brings together a broad spectrum from the civil rights movement itself – from the time of the birth of the Ku Klux Klansmen – and updates it to expose the continuity of ignorance through shots of David Duke today, the ex-grand wizard of the KKK and ally of President Donald Trump, spewing racism as never before. It is astounding how this entire undercover exposure pans out to the extent that it rationally brings together these peculiar inflections in white policemen, racist as hell, but still capable of grandstanding for “law and order,” nailing down bigger bigots and even arresting them, exposing them, and showing a sort of respectful condescension towards a black undercover agent.
What does this movie achieve?
Not a lot, but something…
It has the feeling of a “spliff” – as Spike Lee always referred to his movies in the past – but then it becomes a drag, due to the caricature element that keeps slipping in. However, a sort of quick run off to the present is educational and excellent, including a rather fantastic appearance by Harry Bellafonte at ninety, who holds down a Mr. Turrentine, remembering a lynching he had witnessed. He does this in the most gentle, articulate and storytelling nature – like a griot. Much appreciated!
The movie is erratic in some ways, spoofy, but still a kind of hard blow to the current state of America. And despite it being unsettled at times and unsophisticated, it still carries a necessary element of exposure. It’s a drag because you can easily tell what’s coming. There are no surprises. Bigots play bigots. Black Power harangues tend to be portrayed as just that, often comical diatribes, since the militancy of the Black Power movement lay somewhere else. Although that type of portrayal is probably closely bound to the book written by Ron Stallworth, a doc film based on a personal story must eventually mobilize people, inform people. It is no secret that filmmakers do not always follow the script. It is not the kind of movie that people go to see and say, “Is that really what happened? Is that what happened? Oh my God! Is that in the book?” But the film doesn’t raise the level of dignity of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement was an extraordinarily dignified movement. Loving to dance, sure – you can’t take that away – but it was not all about strutting and attitude. It was not about clenched fists only. There was a lot of organizing and unity among blacks, whites, and people of colour. This movie unfortunately makes a 70 percent mark. It is useful nonetheless.
Jews and civil rights
There’s something else to this movie that needs to be pointed out, and Spike Lee does a fantastic job at it. He continuously brings up the fact that the treatment of Jews in the entire history of the United States has been vicious and violent. Jews and Communist progressives were the real targets of the Christian Evangelical Deep South nexus. This is important because there are many grey areas that float around today in the Black Consciousness movement when it comes to the bond between Jewish intellectuals, Jewish activists, Jewish scientists, Jewish civil rights workers and their enormous contribution to the civil rights movement – a political heritage rooted in class struggle and the history of settlerism. It wasn’t blacks or Muslims who mobilized against Jews and Communists/Socialists, but Christian Evangelists and Catholics. Spike Lee as a black filmmaker makes it very clear that the left-wing Jewish contribution to progressive politics is crucial and must be known.
It’s not about what we see and hear today. It’s about a much longer tradition of stereotyping and caricaturing of Jews, starting out long before the portrayals of Shylock or Jesus-killers. The movie sets out to ensure that people understand that racism was directed formidably against Jews, and that it was wielded by Christian fundamentalists. Today that is masked with all kinds of proto-Zionist and Zionist notions of defending Israel as if Israel and Christianity stand for each other. Perhaps Israel today is highly dependent on evangelical support.
Having said that, the movie adds one of the undercover agents who is a cultural Jew, who doesn’t even know he is a Jew, who has never lived the life of a Jew, but who nevertheless shows extraordinary chutzpah and intelligence in going undercover into the Klan as a white person (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver). His intellectual compassion with the civil rights movement is clear.