Warning: Contains spoilers.
In his latest film, BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee tells a (highly embellished) true story of Ron Stallworth, a black man who joined the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1979. With the help of his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman, Stallworth infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and gathers vital intelligence on the white supremacist organisation, ultimately foiling a bomb plot intended to kill the head of the black student union at Colorado College, Patrice Dumas.
The film has garnered considerable press attention for a number of reasons, not least its subject matter which is understandably resonant in America’s current political climate. Reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive. Currently, it holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on nearly 300 reviews), with Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times calling it, ‘one of Spike Lee’s most accomplished films in recent memory, and one of the best films of 2018’, and Oliver Jones of the New York Observer describing the film as a ‘kitchen sink and kaleidoscopic study of cultural and institutional racism in America.’
The film has also received its fair share of criticism, however. Boots Riley, director of the equally-acclaimed science-fiction film Sorry to Bother You, took issue with the film’s multiple historical inaccuracies regarding the real-life Stallworth’s role in police undercover infiltration operations and the broader, particularised objectives of police infiltration of black activist and white supremacist organisations in the late 1970s. Riley also highlights Lee’s own connection to the police in light of the news that he was recently paid $200,000 by the NYPD for an ad campaign intended to ‘strengthen the partnership between the NYPD and the community it serves’.
At the conclusion of his essay, Riley remarks that BlacKkKlansman ‘feels like an extension of that ad campaign’. Though Riley makes his own argument more effectively than I could ever hope to, his comments raise further questions regarding the underlying ideology of BlacKkKlansman which, despite its radical title, characters and subject matter, presents a message that in many ways differs little from prevailing attitudes in white liberal circles today.
In my opinion, Lee’s film does little more than repackage white liberal ideology in a radical shell, proferring the notion of a shared objective between black activists and the police state, as well as congratulating and coddling white audience members for their ability to identify surface-level examples of racism with little inquiry into deeper systemic or institutional injustices.
Like many of Spike Lee’s films, each of the characters in BlacKkKlansman can be interpreted as a synecdochic stand-in for a particular faction of society, while their interactions with Ron Stallworth tend to illuminate the director’s own beliefs regarding the relationships between these factions.
Police Chief Bridges, for example, represents the bureaucratic arm of the police state. Ron’s two white partners represent the noble police detectives, the “boots on the ground” doing the real work, fighting crime and “getting the job done”. In Spike Lee’s typical subversive style, the cop who works closest with Ron has the surname Zimmerman, but get this – he’s actually one of the good guys.
Andy Landers, a cartoonish, Mean Girls-esque beat cop rumoured to have shot and killed an unarmed black teen, who harasses Ron around the station and knocks paperwork out of his arms in the corridor (yes), represents institutional racism in the police.
Black student union head and radical activist Patrice Dumas passionately condemns the “pigs” and the police state – at least passionately enough to create space for Ron to extol the value and virtues of a principled police force to her.
The film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth, then represents a bridge between these various factions. His trendy clothes and afro suggest an affinity with Patrice’s black radicalism, but he remains firmly committed to law and order, refusing to say “pigs” over “police officers”. He’s a black man who thinks the most radical work should be done from inside the institution.
On the other side, the KKK’s various members present a range of caricatures of white racists in American society, each of them bumbling and inept in their own special way. Colorado Springs chapter president Walter Breachway is the calculating brains of the operation, so strategic and concerned about OPSEC that he places a recruitment advertisement (complete with telephone number and picture of a man in robes) in the local newspaper, then asks Ron how he found them.
Felix Kendrickson is an ice-chewing sociopath whose virulent racism and antisemitism seems born more from his utter social impotence than from any broader pervading societal ills. And Ivanhoe is, of course, the comical drunken hick who can barely shoot straight, spends more time pointing his loaded gun at his own face than anything else, and is probably only a racist because he’s so poor, drunk and stupid – racism being, as we all know, a predominantly working class affliction. Collectively, Lee’s portrait of the KKK is one of a gaggle of halfwits so utterly inept that they would probably be getting their faces blown off trying to seduce a bundle of dynamite wearing a blonde wig were it not for the immediate presence of their equally dim-witted wives and lovers.
Lee wastes no time in establishing the ideological distinction between the two factions in his film. The KKK is a collective of braindead racists competing to see who can blurt out the most racial slurs in a single breath, while the police are all ultimately good guys who, despite being suspicious of Ron for the first five minutes, warm to him almost immediately and join him in the fight against racism – except for that one bad cop, who they’re all aware of, and wish they could stop, but “whaddaya gonna do?”
As for Patrice, her passionate involvement in black activism has empowered her to condemn the police as defenders of white supremacy. Unfortunately, however, Lee never empowers her with any sort of challenge to Ron’s insistence that the police are good and actually on her side. Perhaps if there had been other prominent black women fighting police brutality during the 1970s, they might have been able to offer a retort to Ron’s position, but they are sadly absent, and instead we’re led to believe there’s no counter-point to the unquestionable necessity of police beyond hollow declarations of “fuck 12”.
Lee knows the role that women play in racial politics, however. It is with the KKK’s “wives and daughters”, such as Felix Kendrickson’s wife Connie, where the director makes his most impactful examination of white supremacist psychology, depicting white women as willing, calculated co-conspirators in their partners’ plans.
In early scenes, Connie Hendrickson proffers intel and strategy to the Klan as she serves them refreshments in her living room. Later on, when new men are being inducted into the klan by Grand Wizard David Duke, the door is flung open for their women to join them, their “prize” for fighting to defend their race. And at the film’s climax, it is Connie who goes to plant the bomb at Patrice’s home and, when tackled and arrested by Ron, weaponises her white feminine fragility, screaming, crying, and claiming he is attempting to rape her.
Lee clearly understands how white femininity is utilised by both men and women in white supremacist thought, simultaneously cold, calculating, committed to the cause, and fragile, delicate and in need of protection. In these women, he identifies white supremacist ideology as a structural deployment of simultaneous strength and weakness; of fervour and fragility. It is frustrating, then, that he is unwilling or unable to identify or explore this structure elsewhere.
Returning to Patrice, her relationship with Ron analogises an ideological battle between a deep distrust of the police in the black community, and a nevertheless persisting belief that society needs them. Stallworth says as much in his own words, and Lee himself responded to Boots Riley’s criticisms of BlacKkKlansman by saying ‘we need police’. In the film’s closing scenes, Ron and Patrice are disturbed by a noise outside of their house and march slowly down the corridor together, guns drawn, only to discover a burning cross outside surrounded by hooded klansmen. In this scene, Lee depicts black activists and the police united in the fight against white supremacy, a belief that is invalidated not only by the police’s overt attempts to disrupt and destabilise black activist groups throughout the twentieth century, but by the continued killing of unarmed black men and women by police officers today.
This issue is ultimately the fatal flaw of BlacKkKlansman, and the fatal flaw of white liberal thought at large; a steadfast belief in ‘the better angels of our nature’; the notion that all of us who are not overtly “bad” are therefore “good”, and that all “good” people are therefore fighting the same fight. BlacKkKlansman does not confront white liberal audiences with the reality of racism and white supremacy in the world today so much as it congratulates and coddles them for simply recognising it in its most overt and deafening forms.
Two contrasting moments in the film exemplify this problem. When Police Chief Bridges first draws Ron and Flip Zimmerman’s attention to David Duke, he explains how the young and charismatic Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan has assumed the title of “National Director” in an attempt to politically legitimise the organisation. Zimmerman scoffs at this prospect, exclaiming, ‘It’s not like one of these guys is ever going to be elected president!’
Understandably, and predictably, the audience laughed at this line. After all, America’s current president was elected on a platform of both dog-whistle racism and overt white nationalist rhetoric, supported and endorsed by numerous white nationalist and nationalist-adjacent figures like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Nigel Farage and, indeed, David Duke.
But in the opening scenes of the film, we encounter another white nationalist, Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, played by Alec Baldwin (who, in the months following Trump’s election, made regular headlines impersonating him on Saturday Night Live). Stood before a projector, Beauregard practices an impassioned speech reminiscent in substance of Oswald Mosley’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, but in style of InfoWars’ Alex Jones.
Beauregard coughs, splutters, muffs up lines and requests do-overs, highlighting the melodrama and performativity of white victimhood and “white genocide” rhetoric. It immediately made me think of Jones’ lawyer’s recent defence of his client, insisting that the right-wing conspiracy theorist is just ‘playing a character’. As Beauregard reaches the climax of his speech, he warns of an impending attack of ‘superpredators’, a term used to describe black criminal youth in the 1990s by Hillary Clinton. Where the audience laughed at their ability to identify Trump as a modern symbol of white supremacy, there was no response to a dog-whistle term employed by someone on the “good” side.
And therein lies the problem with Lee’s film. Like much of contemporary culture, from nostalgic 80s blockbuster reboots in cinema, to the pop music industry’s penchant for homage and pastiche, to the superliminal intertextuality of contemporary art, BlacKkKlansman is a film of reference. Rather than challenge its audience with new perspectives or hard-to-swallow ideas – such as the formulation of racism as a system of power that pervades, and is empowered by, every pillar of society – the film rewards the white liberal gaze with easy-to-spot signs, and congratulates them for “getting the reference”. Conveniently, the majority of these references correspond comfortably with the status quo.
This position then problematises any attempt by Lee to communicate the severity of the threat posed by the rise of white supremacist groups in the present day, because it refuses to confront the problem at the root. BlacKkKlansman is eager to talk about the fire in the living room, but changes the subject when it comes to the gas leak in the kitchen.
Despite his suggestion that the KKK is staffed by halfwits from the top of the ladder to the bottom rung, the police, and the film itself, dedicate the vast majority of their time and energy to combatting and defeating them. In spite of this, the klan succeeds in executing their bomb plot, detonating the explosives intended to kill Patrice, but due to their own ineptitude, the explosives turn out to be placed in a car next to theirs, and they end up killing themselves. Insert comical spring noise here.
As for the “one bad apple”, Officer Andy Landers’ overt racist and misogynistic attitudes go largely unaddressed throughout the film. During a police stop following a black student union meeting, he hurls racist abuse at Patrice before sexually-assaulting her in a shot-for-shot remake of the Thandie Newton assault scene from Crash (another critically-acclaimed film that dared to ask, “What if a racist cop sexually assaulted you, but then saved your life?”).
Landers disappears from sight for the rest of the film, only to reappear in a bar in the final ten minutes. Entering, and sitting down next to Ron and Patrice, the couple ask him leading questions about his racism, sexism, and assaults, to which he enthusiastically replies in the affirmative – just like racist cops in the real world.
Once Landers has proudly confessed to being a bigot triple-threat Ron stands up to reveal that he is wearing a wire and has been recording the conversation. His partners then stand up from the table behind, revealing they were all listening. Police Chief Bridges then walks into the bar to immediately arrest bad cop Landers on the charges of being a bad cop, where he is then extradited to Caucasia to be jailed for life without trial, solving the problem of institutional racism in the police once and for all.
The ease and simplicity with which Lee addresses the problem of systemic racism and abuse in the police, contrasted with the months-long tactical infiltration of the imbecilic KKK that the film focuses on, underpins the fatal flaw in BlacKkKlansman. Lee tells us to ignore any problems of prejudice or bias on the side of power. Any unfortunate instances of racism in the justice system are surely the result of bad apples, and will be dealt with when the time is appropriate.
All of which makes the film’s coda all the more infuriating. After Patrice and Ron’s united march down their corridor towards the burning cross, the film abruptly cuts to modern-day footage of Donald Trump, the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally of August 2017, and footage of the car attack perpetrated by a right-wing activist that killed Heather Heyer. This is then followed by an image of an inverted flag of the United States which fades to black and white.
The presentation of this footage after such an ideologically confused film is at best idealistic, and at worst manipulative. Lee’s overarching declaration that the police are on the side of black and marginalised communities in the USA stands in utter contradiction to the FBI’s own admission that white nationalist domestic terrorist groups have infiltrated the police across the country, and the fact that at both the Charlottesville rally and subsequent rallies in towns like Portland, Berkeley, Oakland and Washington D.C., the police have worked to protect right-wing activists while taking measures to identify and suppress left-wing and anti-fascist activist counter-protests. For the man commonly regarded by as America’s leading radical black film director to proffer a narrative that the police are on the side of the oppressed at a time like this is not just disingenuous – it’s dangerous.
To understand Spike Lee as a filmmaker, it might be best to go back to his 2000 film, Bamboozled. In it, he tells the story of a highly-educated, black, middle class television executive who, under pressure from his white boss to increase ratings, decides to create a televised version of the black-and-white minstrel show.
His objective is to create something so tasteless and offensive that he will get fired, but in a The Producers-esque turn, the show proves to be a hit with both white and black audiences, and his career skyrockets. His success, however, brings with it an internal crisis about his own integrity, and the success he has built exploiting his own community.
He is presented with a choice – to reject the allure of money, fame and glory, and to create art that truly challenges people and elevates his community, or to create simple, unchallenging media that will satisfy the masses at the expense of something grander. For all of the energy, optimism and urgency he injects in the film, BlacKkKlansman feels like Spike Lee chose the latter.
Yes, Donald Trump is a white nationalist, but why does Spike Lee fail to examine how racist polemics have been used to empower politicians from both of America’s leading political parties? Yes, white women voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and have historically collaborated with their male counterparts to maintain white supremacy, so why does Spike Lee reduce the black women in his film to cynical teens who should seek solidarity with state authority, and not their own community activism? Yes, working-class and less-educated people are more susceptible to the simplistic rhetoric of racists and white supremacists, but why does Spike Lee act as if the ills pervading society today are the result of a bunch of moonshine-sipping hicks called Gomer and Cletus, and not a cabal of incredibly wealthy people educated in some of the most prestigious institutions in their respective countries?
BlacKkKlansman is not critically acclaimed because it challenges the current order, or pressures white audiences to dig deeper, think critically, and question their own privileged position in a broader structure of power. It’s critically acclaimed because it tells them what they already know, and that knowing is all they need to do, and that ultimately the system will hold bad people to account.
Of course, I doubt Spike Lee really believes this. That’s why he tries to shake you out of your seat with that real life footage at the film’s end, but he wouldn’t need to bludgeon you over the head with traumatic imagery in the last two minutes if he’d picked a side in the first place.
That’s the problem with white liberalism. It believes in a tent so big, it’ll let anyone in. Even the enemy.