There is another new film to match with Sorry to Bother You, the creative work I have written about previously (see earlier posts, Sorry to Bother You, When Do I Use My White Voice, Scraping More Paint, Unlocking the Trap–Part 2, and Part 1).
The new one is BlackKKlansman, the latest Spike Lee offering. And those two films are parts of a trilogy of recent films about racism/white supremacy, the third being last year’s Get Out (some would add a fourth, Blindspotting, but I have yet to see it and so don’t comment here).
Every white person, and others too, should see all three to learn more about our racialized heritage. Each of these works probes and unpacks truths about the reality of white supremacy/racism in the United States today—instead of reifying that reality as films have done for so long.
I can already sense some white readers saying, “Not this again. Do we have to hear more about something we did not cause and do not like?”The answer is yes, of course, because we have a role in changing the system.
There is so much to write about this film that tells of the true story of the first African American Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (played brilliantly by John David Washington, Denzel’s son). In simplest terms, he wanted to be a cop. The film has us believe the chief wants to hire him, but at the same time he is not just sure what to do with him. So his first assignment is to the Records Desk, getting files for other officers. There he encounters considerable racism, especially one deeply racist, white supremacist cop.
What Stallworth really wants is to be a detective, and he gets a chance to go undercover at a rally of the Black Student Union of a local college, an event headlined by Kwame Toure (known to the police and much of the white world as Stokely Carmichael).
Of course, if Stallworth had been white, he would not have been given that assignment. Yet, it is on this basis that the story unfolds. It is here also that a romantic attachment begins, one that will reverberate in many ways throughout the film.
The plot is taken pretty faithfully from Stallworth’s book. Black Klansman: A Memoir (2014), although dialogue is the creation of Spike Lee and others. And Lee adds important background in showing scenes from the deeply racist silent film, Birth of a Nation, as well as news footage from last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA (including the remarks of the President about “good people” on all sides.
I have thought quite a bit about what I, as a white person, gain from this film, and what I think other white people could also receive.
First, is the intimate portrait of evil within the KKK (and the wider white nationalist supremacist movements), especially as they are uncovered by Stallworth’s white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played with incredible power by Adam Driver). Part of that power comes from Zimmerman being Jewish. Indeed, I was left reeling during the scene where he disagrees with other KKK members who claim the Holocaust is “fake news,” by claiming it did a good thing by wiping out Jews—and his newfound allies are supremely satisfied that he really gets the truth.
it is the use of language that kept me riveted, and helps me see how white extremists continue to bury their vile views in acceptable language.
When they succeed, they delude not only themselves but also the rest of us. In this film, members of the Klan are schooled to never use that name; instead it is “the organization.” The local Klan leader seeks to put a pleasant face on the group (undercut by others who relish in virulent language), and David Duke (Topher Grace), the storied leader of the Klan nationally is portrayed as a mild, well-mannered leader who hates no one, just wants white people to live among themselves without the presence of Blacks or Jews or others.
Critic Naomi Elias writes, “In his slickest salesperson voice Duke says that he agrees with people who say that “America is a racist country” — but unlike the black Colorado residents using the phrase to call out the racial profiling and police brutality they experience, Duke argues America is racist because it’s “anti-white.” This willful misuse of the word “racism” allows him to reframe oppressors as victims and vice versa.”
Of course, more people than David Duke use this kind of language reversal to make themselves and others in their groups into victims. We can see this in a certain President of the United States.
“Alt-right” is a seemingly harmless way to describe people who are white supremacists and nationalists, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, white racial purists, and its proponents have brilliantly succeeded in getting much of the mainstream media as well as ordinary people to use the term. It even sounds lively and avant-garde, like alt-rock and alt-weekly newspaper.
This echoes the efforts in the 19th Century (and yet today) to claim that the South was only fighting for states’ rights not slavery. This also echoes how many white people say, “I’m not racist,” meaning they do not use the N-word or other ugliness—even as they help perpetuate structures of race-based oppression.
Organizations, business and otherwise, even churches do this sort of thing when they talk about diversity and inclusion while never linking either to our white-dominated national (and global) heritage that remains alive and well. The goals are commendable but they tend to work “feel good” emotions—valuing everyone equally is a worthy goal, but that will not happen until we take our boot off the backs of those unlike ourselves.
We have much to learn about ending the ugliness of the KKK and allied hate groups, and even more to learn about how to undo our denial of what our fellow human beings go through every day. That requires taking the blinders off.
This is much harder than trying to get people to “just get along” better. It requires that we pay close attention not just to good intentions but also to dangerous, damaging, destructive outcomes. In simple terms, I mean paying attention, and proactively working to correct the reality of outrageous levels of incarceration of Black and brown people, the high rates of poverty within Black communities, “food deserts” and lack of health care in minority communities, etc.
The usual practice of denial and dismissal is shown by the action of the Chief of Police who tells Stallworth and Zimmerman and the other officers who have been supportive of them to bury the files. Thankfully, Stallworth wrote his book, and Lee made his film.
We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away until we face it, name it, recognize our role in it, repent, change our ways, and make reparations.
Start by seeing this film (and the others mentioned above).