According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken shortly after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville and one killed Heather Heyer in August 2017, 22 million Americans consider white supremacist or Neo-Nazi views “acceptable”; this is roughly ten percent of the population of the United States (Janet Retiman, “State of Denial”, New York Times Magazine, 11 November 2018, 68). Statistics such as these can only come as a surprise to those who still remain blissfully unaware of how white supremacy and settler colonialism have structured the founding of the United States, and it courses through the country’s veins to this very day. White nostalgia for a past that never existed for a majority of Americans regardless of their race nonetheless ushered in Donald Trump as president to “make America great again.”
Belatedly accompanying the resurgence of white nationalism that began in 2008 as a reaction against the election of Barack Obama and a global economic crisis that dispossessed millions worldwide, was a slight opening of Hollywood screens to black directors and scriptwriters.
Fruitvale Station (2013), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Dear White People (2014), Dope (2015), Creed (2015), Moonlight (2016), Lemonade (2016), Fences (2016), Mudbound (2017), The Hate U Give (2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Creed II (2018), Widows (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018) translated a wide scope of African-American experiences to mass audiences. Get OutGet Out (2017) and Black Panther (2018) represented twin high points that deftly meld Hollywood generic conventions, respectively horror and the superhero film, with highly nuanced representations of African-American characters and storylines. Although it would be premature to call this the dawning of a new Hollywood that is ushering in black talent at all levels (one can recall a similar hasty prediction being trumpeted during the early ’90s with the rise of black produced gangsta films only to quickly ebb a few years later), clearly the pressures from both #hollywoodtoowhite and #metoo are having some impact.
Throughout all this, however,
Spike Lee has remained a constant presence in Hollywood since the mid-’80s. No one seems better suited to direct a film about white supremacy, occurring both on and off the screen, for a nation swimming in a sea of racist discourse routinely being tweeted out of a White House that approvingly dog whistles white nationalists and reinforces the deep-seated racist unconscious that guides much of its public policy and plays into the founding myths surrounding the United States.
Not coincidentally, Lee’s most recent film,
BlacKkKlansman, begins with the primal scene of what would eventually become the Hollywood blockbuster: Birth of a Nation (1915). Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, played by Alex Baldwin, who one cannot help but conflate with his recurring Saturday Night Live Trump parody, stands before us in black-and-white grainy footage of what appears to be a low-budget racist propaganda film. As he repeatedly garbles various racist invectives, he stares out to us, the audience, as sympathizers as he intones, “We are living in an era marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation.” As his speech becomes increasingly unhinged and vehement by suggesting that Jews control the media and communists secretly bolster the Civil Rights movement — common racist tropes of the past and present — the sequence becomes increasingly surreal as Birth of a Nation footage plays over him as he speaks. The imagery and speech forge links between various eras of highly visible racism and also suggests how cinematic racism leads to its incarnation in everyday life. To further stress the point, Beauregard explosively punctuates, “They are super predators”, an anachronistic phrase of the present moment, thus suggesting the continuum of racist thought stretching from two hundred years ago to now. Although the story of BlacKkKlansman’s Ron Stallworth takes place in the ’70s, Lee’s film clearly signals that it’s confronting the current rise of white nationalism, too.
These links between past and present are most clearly made through the figure of David Duke (Topher Grace). He represents a new form of racist, one who can be charming if you don’t really listen to his words. Rather than remain a fringe element, Duke wants to become directly engaged in the political process, which becomes a reality when he serves in the House of Representatives from 1989-1992. In measured tones, he normalizes hate speech as he tells Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the lead character who, as a black man, infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan: “Our program dares to love white people, white heritage and white freedom. Our program also dares to expose Jewish supremacism.” Tellingly, before we realize that Duke is speaking with Ron, his words play over other sequences of characters, unmoored, seeping into the racist subconscious that guides many of their actions and suggests that his outlook weaves itself throughout the wider fabric of the United States. (A similar point is made in a recent
New York Times articles by Janet Reitman when speaking to white supremacist and felon William Fears: “The genius of the new far right, if we could call it ‘genius,’ has been their steadfast determination to blend into the larger fabric of society to such an extent that perhaps the only way you might see them as a problem is if you actually want to see them at all.” (“State of Denial,” 68).
The film concludes with footage from the Unite the Right rally in August 2017, when white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia. Footage follows of Duke supporting the rally: “This is a first step to making a realization of something that Trump alluded to earlier in the campaign, which is: this is the first step toward taking America back.” His ambition, ignited during the ’70s, has firmly taken root and led to its logical conclusion: the death of those opposing white supremacy. A long take of a photograph of Heather Heyer concludes the film in silence as her image dissolves into an upside-down picture of the American flag, a symbol of distress. Lee’s film Malcolm X (1992) employs a similar cinematic move where the American flag burns to reveal the beating of Rodney King while we hear a speech from Malcolm X, again suggesting how past and present racism tragically converge into violence upon bodies.
BlackKklansman most dramatically reveals how race is a performance, not a biological essence, as it focuses on the importance of language in structuring racial representations. (Not coincidentally, Boots Riley’s brilliant film Sorry to Bother You makes a similar observation as its black lead character played by Lakeith Stanfield learns how to move up the corporate hierarchy by employing his “white” voice when speaking to customers in order to increase his telemarketing sales.) BlackKklansman, too, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of language. After Stallworth speaks with the Klan, the chief of police has difficulty understanding how a white cop can then meet with them in Ron’s place. Stallworth asserts, “Some of us can speak the King’s English and some of us speak jive. I do both.” The chief remains skeptical, revealing in part his own racial bias by suggesting how he views specific types of speech as intimately wedded with specific races rather than free floating signifiers that can be redeployed at will.
Similarly, David Duke asserts that language reveals the inner being of race. When Ron questions him about how he can discern the race of another person on the end of the phone, Duke asserts, “I can tell you are a pure Aryan white man from the way you pronounce certain words.” He continues: “Take the word, ‘are.’ A true Aryan like you or me pronounces it correctly. A Negro pronounces it, ‘Are-uh.’ You ever notice that ‘Are-uh you gonna fry up that crispy fried chicken, soul brother?” The humor comes not only in terms of the ridiculous stereotype Duke employs, but also at his hapless stumbling over African-American vernacular. Duke’s inept code switching reveals his inability to imagine how others, like Ron, can seamlessly do so. As a result, the end of the film when Ron reveals himself as black over the phone by exaggerating the word “Are-uh” to Duke and calling him, “You racist, peckerwood, redneck, inchworm, needle-dick motherfucker!” before dramatically slamming the receiver down comes as a bit of poetic justice, regardless of its improbability. Duke is left sitting silently and bewildered with phone cupped in his hand as his very sense of the immutability of race temporarily falls by the wayside.
One of the challenges of the film, however, is its negotiation of the buddy cop drama. As Manthia Diawara notes, the genre holds racial limitations in that it transplants black characters into a white milieu that often evacuates any sense of African-American cultural tradition or historic context (See “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance”, in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara, New York: Routledge, 1993). Colorado Springs, BlacKkKlansman’s main location, epitomizes a quintessential white landscape. It’s the place where mostly white suburbanites stroll through Garden of the Gods or hike Pikes Peak while a red light from NORAD, the symbol of Cold War hegemony that marks ground zero where the president would bunker during a nuclear attack, blinks from a steel tower slowly in the distance as a constant reminder of approaching doom.
The film makes no efforts to explain Ron’s relationship to the town: why he’s there; what he makes of it; what his relationship to it is. In part this is understandable, since BlacKkKlansman is not concerned with psychology or character development; it’s more of an excavation of an important historical moment of white supremacy that serves as a map to decipher America’s present situation where millions of people elected a white nationalist to the White House.
To give the film credit, it carves out space to address African-American experiences that are normally excised from the buddy cop film. This most notably occurs with the arrival of Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) (Corey Hawkins) to town. First of all, one has to commend a film that seizes a moment to emphasize an important black radical’s thoughts on black beauty, racial stereotypes in Hollywood, and the need for self-determination. The film stitches together a series of Ture’s speeches together to provide snippets of his thoughts, which don’t necessarily cohere, but provide a broad gesture of concerns.
This sequence emphasizes the poignant cinematography of Chayse Irvin, who was also one of the cinematographers for Beyoncé’s amazing avant-garde music video Lemonade (2016). As Ture speaks about black beauty, rhetorically asking, “Is beauty defined by someone with a narrow nose? Thin lips?”, a series of overlapping shots of black men and women’s faces in the audience gracefully float and dissolve over the screen. Chiaroscuro lighting accentuates the warm tone of different skin tones and sculpts faces into regal countenances.
Such a moment serves an important reminder regarding the beauty of onscreen blackness since Hollywood cinema, as Richard Dyer has shown, has always revolved around whiteness, not only in the casting of its actors, but also in the very type of film stock it used that favored lighter skin tones over that of darker ones. (See Richard Dyer’s White, Routledge 1997). As a result, the efforts of black filmmakers to draw attention to black beauty in their films—in many ways epitomized by Julie Dash’s quest to locate a film stock that would capture the beauty of different dark skin tones of her black female cast in her masterful film Daughters of the Dust (1991)— speaks not only to black audiences, but also attempts to counter a century’s worth of cinema that inherently degraded the black image for the white one.
Yet there’s also a problem with this moment as well. As much as it provides a corrective to a legacy of racist Hollywood cinematography, it casts Kwame Ture as charismatic leaders to his adoring masses, a common Hollywood trope that often disparages the crowd as blind followers or, at worst, as a mob. Rather than representing black power with people mobilizing on their own, the sequence serves more as an idealization of Ture. The audience stands enraptured, adoringly look up towards him, their disembodied faces float across the screen to the sound of the powerful leader’s mesmerizing words. He is their leader, and they are ready to follow.
This notion of the people as undifferentiated mass most dramatically manifests itself when the film juxtaposes David Duke initiating Stallworth as a Klansman with Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounting the story of Jesse Washington, an actual person who was beaten, lynched and castrated for allegedly raping a white woman. At its most apparent, the two sequences are intercut to emphasize the Klan’s indoctrination with its lethal results despite Duke’s constant refrain that his group is not violent. The montage punctuates how white supremacist ideas translate into the bloody actions that made lynching a state-sponsored event where children were dismissed from school to attend and families could purchase pictures of brutalized black bodies.
Both sequences are troublingly choreographed identically with David Duke and Jerome Turner holding court as their followers surround them. Duke’s followers hang on his every word. Turner’s audience gasps in horror as he reveals the lurid details of Washington’s torture. Duke’s followers dress in colorful regalia. Turner’s followers hold enlarged picture souvenirs of Washington’s disfigurement. They represent different political stances, but the dynamics are disturbingly the same. This tends to cast the film’s other black characters more into the backdrop than representing any kind of vibrant community that can self-actualize itself beyond being followers of heroic male figures. (One could potentially make the case for Patrice (Laura Harrier), Stallworth’s love interest, being at least a black female leader, but, as will soon be discussed, the film provides her with a somewhat incoherent stance).
The real problem with BlacKkKlansman is its problematic relationship to the cops. Rile critiqued the film in a lengthy tweet about how it made a “Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism …” Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito) sits by Stallworth’s side offering support as he speaks with the Klan and laughing with Stallworth over the irony of a black man making inroads with white supremacists. At one point, Trapp schools Stallworth about Duke’s mainstreaming of white supremacy to eventually enter politics. When Stallworth objects that America would never elect a black president, Trapp responds, “Coming from a black man, that’s pretty naïve.”
All of the problems with policing is mainly condensed into the character of patrolman Landers (Frederick Weller). He seethes with racism in the way he condescendingly speaks to Stallworth and attempts to incite him. In another scene, he stops Patrice when driving Kwame Ture home. Landers insults her while he feels her up. He serves as the sleazy racist lightning rod, the identifiable and isolatable point of police corruption that can be quarantined and then jettisoned.
Riley is rightfully incensed by the fabricated scene of the film where Stallworth and Patrice record Landers making threats in a bar to them in order to have him arrested and removed from the force. After recording Lander’s racist invective and threats, he asks across the bar repeatedly, “Did you get that?” With each refrain, another member from the police force appears confirming that they did indeed “get that”, suggesting that they all oppose Lander’s racism. Yet earlier in the film, when Stallworth asks his partner Flip Zimmeran (Adam Driver), why they allow a racist like Lander’s on the force, Flip excuses Lansen’s actions by claiming, “We’re a family.” Yet, miraculously this blue wall of silence that has been well documented in innumerable Department of Justice reports over police corruption across the United States gets pushed aside for a happy ending where the cops can clean up their own mess.
Even the Chief of police, the one who earlier revealed his racist tendencies by asserting black people can only speak in vernacular, emerges from a door and offers Ron a high five in ridding the force of Lansen. Reggie Ugwu recently identified how “magical racial justice” operates in a series of black directed films. He suggests that such corrections “provide catharsis where reality has missed the mark” (“Magical Racial Justice,” New York Times, 11 November 2018, 17). For example, the original ending of Get Out, shot when Obama was still president, has Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) go to jail after killing the Armitage family. But as Jordan Peele explains during an interview, that ending seemed too heavy after the election of Trump. So even though unlikely, Chris gets off by being picked up by his TSA friend, Ron (Lil Rel Howery). One should recall the dramatic pause that occurs as we see the flashing police lights approach Chris after he has shot Rose (Allison Williams) and killed her grandfather. It is in that space that the film provides the audience to reflect on their expectations: Chris is going to get busted for murder even though it was self-defense. Then, miraculously, relief swiftly coasts in as the figure of Ron emerges from the car.
BlacKkKlansman, similarly, signals that the arrest of Landers is a fantasy with Flip replying, “The old hidden mic trick.” He seems not to be really referring to their own world but instead is making a meta-filmic comment about the cliché nature of many cop and buddy flicks where the god in the machine saves the day. The problem with this trope, however, is that it repeatedly offers escape routes to the police as if there’s no such thing as systemic racism guiding policing but instead only individual problems that can be easily addressed.
The only real figure of resistance to the police is Patrice. She repeatedly tells Stallworth that reform cannot come from within the police. When Ron suggests that not all cops are racists, she rebuts, “It only takes one cop to kill a brother or sister.” Yet the film portrays Patrice inconsistently and superficially. When Ron and Patrice discuss Blaxploitation films during a romantic walk, she suggests that she would choose Shaft (1971) over Super Fly (1972) because, “I’ll take a private eye over a pimp any day.” But if she really is an adherent of black power, one would think she would hold a much more ambivalent relationship to Blaxploitation films. Although they might have employed many African-American actors with storylines featuring them and delivered pulsing R&B soundtracks, Blaxploitation films often nonetheless bulwarked the status quo (as Shaft does in never joining the militant struggle within the film) and could revert into their own stereotypes. One could further discuss the vexed gender representations and ideas of black macho such films perpetuated. Instead of relaying her position as a black radical with a more fraught stance towards popular culture, the film instead fills her mouth with views reflective of, say, a black, male, middle-class filmmaker.
Indeed, one of the most troubling aspects of BlacKkKlansman is figuring out why Patrice is with Ron in the first place. Although he is good looking, he’s not particularly charismatic and clearly doesn’t share her political views. Apparently, this romance was concocted from whole cloth for the film. Other than reinforcing heteronormative norms to make Ron not seem “too close” to his all-white cop buddies by having a female love interest, this “romance” seems out of place in a film that’s not concerned with character psychology.
Furthermore, it remains a complete mystery why Patrice ends up back with Ron at the end of the film after he admits earlier that he betrayed her by being an undercover detective all along. In the penultimate scene, Patrice begins to confront Ron by stating, “My conscience won’t let me sleep with the enemy.” But before delving into their conflict, the film provides an escape route as they both hear noises in Ron’s front yard. In what has now become a cliché move by Lee, the two approach the door on a standing dolly making the hallway appear to move around them rather than the other way around, their sights land on a huge cross burning on their front yard. This then quickly transitions to footage of Charlottesville.
The links between the past and the present collapse into one another in a powerful way. But the abrupt cut also serves as a copout in deflecting attention from the conflicts between Ron and Patrice and their supposed attraction to one another. What, after all, do they see in each other? Just as Ron blindly supports the cops, Patrice spouts black power bromides. Both of their analyses are equally trite. Ron thinks cops can right the world and cure racism from within their ranks. Patrice believes in “all power to all the people”, whatever that means.
This returns to the limits of the buddy film where black culture remains absent. Although BlacKkKlansman makes some noted efforts to draw attention back to black culture with the appearance of Kwame Ture and a discussion of Blaxploitation films within it, Ron and Patrice remain mostly walking platitudes representing different political stances. On one level, the film smartly evades character psychology. It refuses to psychologize away social problems as resulting from broken families or warped minds. It exposes much of the pervasive nature of white supremacy of the past and how it extends into the present. Though the film strangely shields the police, an organization that many historians have linked as an outgrowth of slave patrols, from such implications by isolating its racism to Landers.
Additionally, the sense of black community, thought, and culture always remains at a distance, something acknowledged but never delved into. For example, addressing a systemic critique of the police by people like Kwame Ture would have been enlightening as it presses against Stallworth’s belief that he can enact change as an individual within the force. But this would have jeopardized the moral authority that the film invests in Stallworth’s position as a “good” cop. The film instead skirts such complexities by raising the specter of white supremacy, which is no small feat. But one wishes that white supremacy didn’t simply remain an outside force that Ron and the police have to confront, but also something within that’s not so easily expunged by random compromised words recorded on a tape. White supremacy might occupy the very terrain in which one is attempting to fight it, as Lee has so deftly suggested throughout his films and the ways they negotiate the vexed racist terrain of Hollywood cinema. However, one wishes the BlacKkKlansman carried this critique back to its own story, where the vestiges of white supremacy might long remain after the easily identifiable white supremacists have been cast out.