Guest Post by Avery Hayden Pierce, IU ’18.
BlackKkKlansman screens Nov 2 at 8PM and Nov 4 at 2PM Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. 7th St. Bloomington, Indiana 47405
I’ve considered Spike Lee to be retired for many years now. Oldboy (2013) began the descent and Chi-Raq (2015) marked the end of his creative ability. Even though I found his recent Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It (2017), a remake of his first feature film, entertaining, it did little to change my opinion of him as an artist. I saw it less as an indicator of newfound imagination, and took it more as a sign that Lee was content to relive the former glory of his early Joints. So, it was with much trepidation that I saw BlacKkKlansman (2018). Even though the initial reviews were positive I was prepared for the worst. Thankfully, BlacKkKlansman surpassed my low expectations. I found the film to be surprisingly subtle in its critiques, at least in comparison to other Spike Lee joints, and was impressed that he tried to touch upon new subject matter. I won’t go so far as to say that this is a complete return to form, but it’s proof that Spike is anything but content to settle into mediocrity.
What surprised me most about the film was how deliberately different it is from the rest of his filmography, at least visually. He has largely abandoned many of his most distinct traits. Gone are the bold primary colors, here replaced with muted grays and rustic greens. The camera largely remains still, confident that the dialogue will hold the audience’s attention. And there are minimal references to other films and pop culture, save for a brief celebration of classic blaxploitation. Of course, this is still a Spike Lee Joint so there is the obligatory dolly zoom shot as well as a dark sense of humor.
However, the change that interested me the most was Spike’s discussion of Judaism, both its relationship with whiteness and similarities with black struggle. Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver’s character, is ethnically Jewish but makes it clear he doesn’t identify as Jewish. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah, doesn’t go to temple, and has never read the Torah. Even when one of his co-workers comments that he is wearing a Jewish necklace, Flip reacts negatively and insists, “it’s not a Jewish necklace, it’s a Star of David.” It isn’t until he comes in conflict with the Klan does he realize that he may be excluded from whiteness.
This isn’t completely new territory for Spike. He has criticized the construct of whiteness before, most notably in Jungle Fever. But he has never done so through the lens of religion or with a sympathetic angle. The audience is not meant to mock or judge Flip for realizing that he’s been passing as white. We are meant to applaud him for using this painful lesson as motivation for fighting against the Klan and the racism that is pervasive in the police force.
It’s impossible to separate a movie from the cultural conversations surrounding it, and so it is with a Spike Lee Joint. When I went into the film Boots Riley’s criticism was at the forefront of my mind. Riley, and other primarily younger critics, argued that the film prioritized protecting the feelings of a white audience instead of pushing a more progressive message. And, at least on a surface level, that criticism bears true. Stallworth gives an impassioned speech about the value of the police, there are four police officers who are undoubtedly good guys, and speeches of black liberation are often juxtaposed with speeches of white nationalism. But after reflecting on the plot, and revisiting Spike’s earlier works, I’ve soured on Riley’s arguments.
The thrust of the social criticism against BlacKkKlansman is that it’s pro-cop and pushes the argument that the police, an inherently racist system, can be changed on the inside through good cops like Stallworth. They effectively declare the film to be propaganda. This argument only holds water if you ignore the last ten minutes of the film. Stallworth attempts to save Patrice, the president of the black student union and the love interest, but is thwarted by two white cops who don’t believe his claims of being an officer. Patrice is ultimately saved by the KKK’s own incompetence. Afterwards Chief Bridges calls off the investigation due to “budget cuts” and orders Stallworth to never contact the Klan again. Later Patrice makes it very clear that she’s dumping Stallworth because he’s a cop, and she can’t accept that according to her politics. The KKK then burns a cross in front of Stallworth’s apartment and the film immediately cuts to footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, and footage of the murder of Heather Heyer.
The message of the final sequence is as blatant as it is bleak: Stallworth accomplished nothing. The Klan is still active and unafraid, David Duke will be elected in Louisiana, and Heather Heyer will die. The crosses will burn, and there is nothing Stallworth can do to stop it. The ending is nothing short of the complete unraveling of everything Stallworth tried to accomplish. By depicting Stallworth’s effort as a failure, if a noble one, it’s hard to see how BlacKkKlansman is advocating for changing the system from within. Stallworth tried that approach and has nothing to show for it. I struggle to see how anyone could misinterpret the final message of the film.
Boots Riley also chastised Spike for creating Flip Zimmerman. Arguing that since the real Ron Stallworth never partnered with a Jewish officer, then Flip is a tool created to propagandize the police. But this misunderstands the larger implications invoked by Flip’s identity as a Jewish man. Because of his heritage Flip is denied entry into whiteness by the violent gatekeepers of the KKK, even though he has always considered himself a part of the white monolith. But Flip is still able to infiltrate the Klan successfully. He does so by adopting the KKK’s accepted brand of whiteness, which mainly consists of saying nigger and shooting guns. Flip is so successful that David Duke uses him as an example of a great white man. The point of Flip Zimmerman isn’t to provide another sympathetic police officer for a white audience, but to undermine whiteness by showing the performative nature of race, further showing the illusions of the concept of race in general. Critics also are dismayed that Spike seems to draw a line between black liberation and white nationalism, often juxtaposing the two ideologies. I disregard this critique outright. I find it hard to believe that Spike Lee, a man who wholeheartedly agrees with Malcolm X’s quote “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence”, truly believes that black liberation is on the same moral ground as white nationalism. To claim that he does is to take BlacKkKlansman entirely in bad faith.
Riley focuses on the political implications of Flip’s and Stallworth’s jobs as policeman, and in doing so he misses the true meaning of the film. BlacKkKlansman is not a film about cops vs the KKK or one black man’s quest to fix a broken system. No, it’s primarily about the ties that bind Jewish people and black people together in the decades long struggle against white supremacy in America. The oppressors see us as one and the same, Spike argues, so why bother dividing ourselves when we are stronger together? Either we confront the system as one or we shouldn’t even bother. This message is reinforced directly and indirectly throughout the whole film. Flip uses his status in the force to advocate for Stallworth’s investigation, Stallworth chastises Flip for not being more emotionally invested as a Jewish man, and they both rescue one another from danger multiple times. The message of racial solidarity isn’t presented in the brash tone to which we are accustomed from a Spike Lee Joint, but it’s there. BlacKKKlansman is a call for solidarity among all people in the struggle against white supremacy, for we are much stronger united than divided.