Before the climax of Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, scenes of an initiation for new knights of the Ku Klux Klan are interspersed with shots of Harry Belafonte as a fictionalised activist describing the 1916 lynching of a black man. Lee makes the division between the two groups clear.
But the hero of Lee’s movie belongs to neither group, and has therefore been derided by Boots Riley, the American musician, in a viral tweet.
BlacKkKlansman makes it clear that while the Black Power activists presented in the film are on the moral high ground, moral righteousness does not make for might without reaching across tribal aisles and reworking corrupt systems from within.
Our hero is Ron Stallworth, a black cop who, with the help of a white cop-turned-body double, infiltrated and thwarted domestic terrorist attacks planned by the KKK. The story’s absurdity can be played for laughs quite simply because it’s true. But Riley, the director, rapper and communist activist, lambasted Lee on Friday for portraying Stallworth and his fellow cops as ‘allies in the fight against racism.’
Without spoiling the film’s plot, Stallworth becomes the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black hire, held to a sky-high standard, and forced to hold his tongue as he faces subtle, racially charges remarks from his fellow ‘family,’ as the cops call themselves. Yet as the film progresses and Stallworth proves himself, he leverages his own excellence to pursue the virulent racism of the KKK and ultimately takes down one within the police force, thanks to the help of his better colleagues. For this, Riley charges Lee with promulgating a dishonest narrative — ie one in which the cops are anything other than filthy ‘pigs.’
Riley specifically takes grievance with the final scene of the film, in which a debate between Stallworth and his fictionalised love interest Patrice, the president of the Black Student Union who detests the notion of dating a ‘pig,’ is interrupted by a commotion outside. Stallworth whips out his gun and, shockingly yet perfectly, is joined by an armed Patrice, ready to face a KKK cross burning. Cut to real shots of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, followed by President Trump’s assertion that there were, of course, ‘very fine people on both sides.’
‘Awww hayull no,’ Riley writes. ‘By now, many folks know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is or not, BlacKkKlansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.’
Ah, yes, the same Lee who literally faced a $1.2 million lawsuit for publishing what he believed to be George Zimmerman’s address, but actually turned out to belong to a different couple. That Spike Lee must be the same one secretly working to infiltrate the interests of Black Americans in favour of the nefarious cop cabal.
The American police system in practice deserves constant vigilance, as Stallworth shows with his progress in purging the force of racism, both casual and violent. Just as the fictional sexual battery of Patrice inflicted by a racist cop had to be faced with clever justice, shootings such as those of Walter Scott and Philando Castile ought to be publicly deemed undoubted egregious abuses of power if not outright racism in practice. But as BlacKkKlansman so expertly demonstrates, Black liberation is not only improbable but also a negative of David Duke’s vision of a ‘separate’ nation for Black people. Stallworth’s goals aren’t tribal. He, more than anyone else in the film, wants ‘all the power, for all the people.’
The very last shot of the film shows an upside down American flag, fading into black and white, stripes as dissonant as the fully realised race unflinchingly captured by the Charlottesville footage. No gradient, no unity of liberation and order; it’s just black versus white, two separate hues. You can’t help but wonder if we’d still be here if the Ron Stallworths of the world got to lead.