Blackkklansman; when Politics collides with the big screen.
Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman” may be termed as his most entertaining, accessible and perhaps his angriest film, packaged as a wake up call to the masses. One which aims to take a more nuanced look at race through an idiosyncratic lens of exaggerated characters which are in actuality all too real and current not only with regards to the year the film was released, but even today. It is set in the 70’s and questions the rose tinted view that perhaps the worst of racism has been left behind, when in reality that thought would be too naïve, especially coming from a person of color. Especially a black man living in the so called land of the free, America.
“Blackkklansman” deals with the issue of race pretty much head on, and analyses this idea of a double consciousness that the Black folk have had to feel caged in. They live in a divided identity which isn’t allowed to be unified into one, their Blackness always seems to be getting in the way of their Americanness. And within this portrayal of two conflicting ideologies, Lee gives a fair portrayal of the two schools of thought that wish to deal with this tragedy in two distinct manners. The radical perspective mostly taken on by student union leaders and their followers, personalities like the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and even Malcom X. And the moderate perspective, the stance of Ron Stallworth who, as a Black man is naïve to believe that he has the power to bring change from within the system. Something that is disproved to him as a crude shock towards the end of the film. But this contrast between the two means of liberation are important in portraying that the black liberation movement and civil disobedience was not in fact monolithic.
The uniqueness of Lee’s take on race relations lies in his equal portrayal of the white supremacists and the Black revolutionaries. And he does so in a manner that even today the characters portrayed in the film are easily classifiable as real life people. One such example is of David Duke, a character inspired form a real life KKK Wizard who still had immense power and control even in 2017. David Duke’s character was in fact also a comical metaphor for President Trump. His constant referrals to the “greatness” of America, even his hair gave it away. But the true significance of David Duke lies in the fact that the true political and power elite of the US is still predominantly white today. And not just any kind of white, the typical white supremacist kind of white. The white that doesn’t even pretend to “not see color.” They see it and they overtly discriminate against it. A prime example of such behavior is through the last clip of the “unite the right rally” in Charlottesville, whose real life footage Lee shows in the end of the film. This is followed by Trump’s observation which very blatantly stated that “very fine people” were on both sides. Even the murder of Heather Hyers wasn’t enough for Trump to contest and question this hateful rally of white supremacists and neo Nazis. His then said statement becomes even more insidious, when we release that recently after the cruel murder of George Floyd and the protests in Minneapolis and eventually throughout the US, Trump had the heart and nerve to call the Black protesters fighting for their right to life “THUGS.”
And this is something that Lee put into perspective towards the end of his film too, be careful who you vote for. And the damage that the white dominance causes isn’t just restricted to the overt political sphere, it runs deep into the social sphere, where men like Mark Zuckerberg decide what is fed to the masses is. When Trump called protesters “THUGS,” twitter was quick to check him for violation of rules in terms of inciting violent. Or when he said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And Zuckergberg was quick to chime in saying it was not the responsibility of social media platforms to verify information or censor it, of course playing into the narrative of the dominant white power elite. And in violent times like these, Stokely Carmichaels quote explaining that nonviolence can only be practiced if the oppressor has a conscious and the US has no conscious become all the more relevant.
And this lack of a conscience isn’t just relevant to the America today, or the one in the 60’s and 70's, it goes all the way back to the America of 1914, with President Woodrow Wilson. Lee’s overt mention and portrayal of the KKK rakes us back to the relevance KKK has always had in American cinema, in fact it’s very revival took place at the hands of cinema with “Birth of a Nation” which was a typical white supremacist troupe that depicted the Black man as a primitive, animalistic beast who was no good other than for raping white women. This development of a systemic narrative and its wide spread is what legitimized this mindset, as Wilson even arranged a screening of this terribly racist film within the white house at the time. Even the portrayal of the Black Victim as the perpetrator and the White perpetrator as a “family person” is something that is encouraged and pumped by the media time and time again.
And if one believes that times have changed, the election of President Trump are enough proof for one to observe and change their minds. Like in the film Ron exclaims that people would never vote for someone like David Duke and the security guard tells him that for a black man, he’s too naïve. And that is exactly what is discussed in the documentary thirteenth as well. The idea that things are in fact just as bad as they used to be. You had laws like “three strikes and you’re out”, the “just say no” campaign or laws that favored perpetrators like George Zimmerman “stand your ground.” The mass incarceration of Black people was a means to evolve the plantation system into a more morally acceptable version according to the times. The portrayal of the demeanor of police towards Ron when the white lady falsely accuses him is to pin down the Black man immediately, even when he keeps stating that he is an officer and has his badge on him. And to think that the same kind of racial profiling still exists, we started with names like Trayvon Martina and Philando Castille and every year we have new names to demand justice for, right now we have George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbury, tomorrow we will have 3 new names.
The fact of the matter is that the past was never good for Black people and the present isn’t good either. And as Robin DiAngelo states in “White Supremacy”, the past was only good for white people because their actions went largely unchallenged.” And this statement is so relevant today, because now that the Black people have had enough with compliance and non-violence and they are ready to rise once again as violently as they are put down, white people suddenly start feeling uncomfortable. They suddenly start gas lighting and start portraying themselves as the victims. Like in the film all the KKK members meetings are quiet laughable, especially one of the members’ wife. You have Tump’s press representative state, hey did you know that President Trumps received 8% of the Black vote? Well who’s going to tell her that it’s out of 100?? And JUST because it surpassed the number Mitt Romney received it is hardly an accomplishment. What’s more uncomfortable to watch is white people choosing to defend their racism under hashtags like “All lives matter” because even now they are not ready to share the space with Black Americans, even now they are hell bent of forcing their identity to remain divided. White people can chime on with “All lives Matter” but when black people want to take the knee of raise a black gloved fist, they face bans.
The crux of “Blackkklansman” I feel truly does lie in the violence vs. the calm that Lee portrays, especially where he juxtaposes the stylized scene of Ron and his friend and the KKK’s burning of the cross. And towards the end of the film Ron himself understands that fighting for Black liberation from within the system may not be as easy or viable as he though because the system itself is white. And for the system to be open enough to give space to Black narratives would be impossible unless the system stops being white and starts being more transparent instead.