Those Boys in the Hoods
- By Jim Hicks
(photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
If you’re reading this blog, one of two things can be assumed: either that you made a point of seeing the new Spike Lee film this past weekend, during the first anniversary of the march on Charlottesville, or that you’ve read at least a review or two, and so already suspect that we may be talking about a masterpiece here. We are. Let’s skip the plot summary, then, so we can move on to what matters more—to this country, and therefore the world, and, I suspect, even to Spike himself.
I don’t need to remind you all that the title of the filmmaker’s breakthrough movie was a call to action, written in the imperative. In Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, it’s not just orthography that gets messed with, as if a single black policeman could indeed surround and overpower the KKK. (Though on occasion, as in this instance, history can and did produce a superhero.) Lee’s wager, instead, is that on occasion a film will move not just its audience, but history itself. His film aspires to be that film: its primary target is the 2018 elections, and its goal is to save US.
At this point, I hear the words in your head: A single movie by a Black director is going to galvanize America—especially White America—at last to put a stake in the coffin of White supremacy? After more than a hundred years of rule by D. W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation (a.k.a. The Clansman)? Pretty to think so. . .
Well. . . yes, it can. And, inshallah, it will. Film has the power to fight the power: this has been a key theme throughout Lee’s career, never more explicitly than here.
Yet the opposition has its films too. BlacKkKlansman begins with a scene from Gone with the Wind: that bird’s-eye-view shot of Scarlett wending her way through hundreds of Confederate casualties lying outside the Atlanta train station, a shot that ends with the Confederate battle flag waving proudly overhead. We next get Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a Bull Connor lookalike, recording a racist rant while standing in front of a projector that spits out scenes from Birth of a Nation. As for the counterculture, well, this is the seventies, so the tutelary spirits who stick it to the man are Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Super Fly—with the requisite funk and soul, and an occasional nod to Bruce Lee thrown in for good measure. In a closing scene, we see Lee’s Ron Stallworth character (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) beside the student militant Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Harrier, Spidey’s crush); here the pair mirror the blaxploitation movie posters we’ve seen throughout the film: packing pistols, they float magically down a long corridor, only then to confront the scene at a window where, on a dark hillside below, a cross is burning, surrounded by Klansmen. Next it’s 2017, and we’re seeing Charlottesville—with newsreel footage of the march, and the carnage that follows.
The film also uses speechifying as counterpoint to its montage of visual culture, and here again Lee leads with a White Power thesis, then uppercuts with a Black Power antithesis. After Baldwin’s Bull Connor rant, we get Corey Hawkins playing Kwame Ture. Stallworth is in the audience for Ture’s call-and-response lecture to Colorado College’s Black Student Union. He attends as an undercover infiltrator, his first assignment, but we watch as the film’s policeman protagonist slowly joins in with the choir. (The speech itself, unlike the actual SNCC activist’s words, focuses on Black self-affirmation rather than collective Black empowerment—a reminder, perhaps, that in film as in the novel, historical narrative only works through representative characters and individualization.) Topher Grace as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke eventually gets to sermonize as well, in a rhetorical performance that, well, pales in comparison. The key scene for Duke and his minions occurs later, when the hatemonger presides over an initiation of new recruits (a ceremony that includes a screening of Birth of a Nation, with the KKK crowd sharing popcorn and cheering every racist turn of the plot).
Borrowing a technique beloved by Griffith himself, Lee intercuts this scene with another—the harrowing tale of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, which the world first heard in excruciating detail from none other than W. E. B. Du Bois. Here the history told at the Black Student Union is voiced with equal gravitas by Harry Belafonte and documented with photographs actually taken during this atrocity, horrific images that were initially passed around as postcards. Belafonte’s character, Jerome Turner, speaks of witnessing these events as a boy, and of surviving them only by hiding, unable to help his friend. Both the KKK initiation and the meeting with Belafonte end with chanting in unison: “White Power” in one room, “Black Power” in the other. Two separatist slogans that are not equal: if ever proof were needed, Lee’s matched shots make this argument irrefutable. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Throughout Spike Lee’s cinematic oeuvre (our single richest, deepest cinematic investigation and intervention into Black/White relations in the US), the question of audience is a constant. Some films—School Daze and Malcolm X, for example—seem primarily directed at a Black audience; others—Do the Right Thing or Jungle Fever come to mind—squarely target the intersection of these two cultures. From what I’ve said thus far, it might be assumed that BlacKkKlansman belongs to the latter group, with Washington’s Ron Stallworth as the flip side to Lee’s own earlier performance as Mookie, and with the White-on-White violence in Charlottesville as a counterpart to that Bed-Stuy fire the last time.
Yet that may not be the whole story. To finish the argument I began above, where I suggest that BlacKkKlansman’s ultimate goal is nation salvation, we may need to stipulate instead that the film’s primary intended audience is White. If so, how would that work? Where does it work, and where not? Probably best to start with the not: one question the film will surely provoke is whether Spike and his scriptwriters (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott, along with the director himself) fell headlong into the “deplorables” trap. Not only does the KKK crowd often come off as clownish or cartoonish, one key character in the group, Ivanhoe (my homeboy, Paul Walter Hauser), seems alcoholically or developmentally disabled, and its only female member, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), is obese. Members of social groups whom the silver screen more typically stereotypes and villainizes might enjoy this sort of thing, or might perhaps argue that turnabout is fair play; be that as it may, this isn’t an area where the film is going to win many votes. Nor does it explain how a clown got into the White House.
A. O. Scott, in the New York Times review, suggests where Lee’s film will get more traction with a White public. Summarizing the key debate between Patrice and Ron, he observes, “Is it better to work inside the system, to push against it from the outside, or to smash it to pieces? This is an old, unresolvable debate, a tension that has partly defined Mr. Lee’s own career. His fearless embrace of contradiction gives BlacKkKlansman its velocity and heft.” While I would agree about the weight and speed, and acknowledge that the debate is left open by the couple in question, in the film itself, it is not. Ron Stallworth’s insider stance on this issue is rock solid, and Lee chose to follow him.
Even more important, at least for its White audience, will be the film’s other Ron, a.k.a. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), not to mention the other boys in blue, for whom Flip serves as synecdoche. When a film wishes to change its world, it must first be that change. And in the world of BlacKkKlansman, that change first takes place inside the other Ron. As Abraham Riesman notes, “Ron tries to point out that Flip, as a Jew, has ‘skin in the game’ in the crusade against the Klan. Flip, in a rare moment of vulnerability, begins to talk about his life as an American Jew in the latter half of the 20th century [. . .] ‘I never thought much about it,’ he says of being Jewish. ‘Now I think about it all the time.’” Riesman asks, “To what do we owe this awakening?” and answers: “Well, Flip started talking to Klansmen, and if that won’t accelerate your awareness of being a member of a minority group, nothing will.”
As it happens, one of the earliest and most eloquent critiques of ethnic and racial assimilationism was published, back in 1966, in the pages of the Massachusetts Review—by none other than Stokely Carmichael. As the Black Power activist then noted, the “concept of integration had to be based on the assumption that there was nothing of value in the Negro community and that little of value could be created among Negroes [. . . T]he goal of the movement for integration was simply to loosen up the restrictions barring the entry of Negroes into the white community.” He goes on to observe that, “Even if such a program were possible its result would be, not to develop the black community as a functional and honorable segment of the total society, with its own cultural identity, life patterns, and institutions, but to abolish it—the final solution to the Negro problem.”
Despite whatever hooting and hollering comes from the boys in the hoods today, the first thing every US citizen should know is that the story of Birth of a Nation is built on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, and thus on a Big Lie. According to Dixon, these United States were born only after the Civil War, post-Reconstruction, when the nation was ostensibly unified by the Ku Klux Klan, under the flag of White supremacy.
Like Dixon and Griffith once did, Spike Lee today sees the nation of his birth torn asunder. As in both Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, the spectre of cross-racial rape also haunts the plot of this film, with a couple of crucial differences. In BlacKkKlansman, women are not helpless, they stand up and fight back. And good guys intervene, but hold their fire—they go to court, not to war. Lee ends his epic with the image of an inverted US flag, its colors draining slowly until only black and white is left. US Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8 states that, “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” The website at USAFlagSupply.com notes that, “people who wish to make a protest in this fashion [should] do so [in a manner] that it is respectful of the flag. We must remember that our flag represents the government of the United States and all of its policies.” True that. In a word, the only way to answer the Big Lie is with Truth. What Spike Lee’s film registers is extreme danger: to Black lives, to every citizen’s liberty and property, indeed to our Union itself. Believe it, receive it (Matthew 21:22)—and then get out and vote.
BlacKkKlansman is not an anti-integrationist or anti-assimilationist film. The case it makes is very different, and far stronger: its message is that the Black community—and by extension the Jewish community, the Islamic community, the Latinx community, the LGBTQIA+ community, the Asian American community, the undocumented community—that every color in the rainbow must be accepted as functional and honorable parts of our total society, with their own cultural identities, life patterns, and institutions. Early on in the film, to make a case for his assignment as detective, Ron Stallworth notes that he happens to be fluent in both “the King’s English and jive.” Cultural fluency, in the end, is what Lee’s film celebrates most; by its final scenes, even a long list of racial invectives creates only comic effect, more proof for the pudding. When, after his ultimate triumph, Detective Stallworth struts back into the precinct, even if every other detective in that office is some flavor of White, each of them, sharing in the celebration, welcomes him by high-fiving, shucking and jiving, performing some White version of Black. Not cultural appropriation, but cultural celebration—this is the best of US culture.
If the intended audience manages to learn anything at all from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen, after the election in November, that’s how we’ll all be dancing.
If not, I’ll have to shave my head again.
Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review
(Spike Lee at Cannes. Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)