Our Creative Writing editor, Hudson Cleveland, reviews BlacKkKlansman and its unnerving parallels with the American political climate today.
The scariest part of Spike Lee’s newest joint, BlacKkKlansman — beyond even the starkly drawn parallels of the ﬁlm’s reality based narrative, and the 2017 Charlottesville alt-right rally — is that David Duke (Topher Grace), former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, wins. That David Duke winds up the ultimate winner of the Colorado Springs debacle might not be readily apparent, what with how easily the ﬁlm pokes at his notions of racial difference; Duke, in the ﬁlm, claims to be able to know a black man by voice alone. He asserts this over the phone to Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), undercover cop inﬁltrating the Klan and, yes, a black man. In which case, the classic distinction between “battle” and “war” is in order: David Duke lost the battle in Colorado Springs, but he did, in fact, win the war.
Somewhere in the middle of the ﬁlm, Ofﬁcer Clay Mulaney (Brian Tarantina) outlines to Stallworth Duke’s overall strategy, that is, the makeover of white supremacy: Duke dresses spifﬁly, combs his hair, has the outward appearance of a next-door neighbour Southern man. In doing so, he sought white supremacy’s normalization and its becoming mainstream — with the aim of putting such people in political power. The obvious nod in the ﬁlm is to Donald Trump, which garners laughs when Stallworth reacts incredulously to the idea that someone could be made President of the United States under such pretences, but the idea, now, is hardly laughable. And that’s because, over the decades, Duke’s strategies bore fruit. Trump is hardly the only example, Duke himself scored 38.8% of the vote in the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election for governor. Richard Spencer, one of the key organizers for the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, coiner of the term “alt-right,” and all-around neo-nazi, utilizes the same techniques. In other words, he attempts to make white supremacists appear rational or normal through image, thus making this ideology appear fashionable. Technology, for decades, has been utilised to manipulate and foster this image and today’s social media followings allow political players such as Spencer and Duke to continue to broadcast this racist agenda. The stream of technological consciousness that can be disseminated so quickly to followers and potential followers alike mirrors the very radio programs of Duke’s broadcast at random throughout BlacKkKlansman. Besides these two, there are other large organizations and individuals who help to spread — or at least do nothing to hinder — the rhetoric they spout: InfoWars, Breitbart, Fox News (in particular, Tucker Carlson). Richard Spencer also vouches for Youtube channels such as Sargon of Akkad — currently at 840,000 subscribers and netting hundreds of thousands of views per week, and a channel which leads down a dark, tortuous rabbit hole of other such content — and there are men like Milo Yiannopoulos, who spread the white ethno-state word through “humour” and “trolling.” Not only is Trump in ofﬁce, Trump-esque candidates have proliferated — and won. How virtually unabashed white supremacy (veiled before, and very thinly now) has begun to rear its head again has a long, convoluted, sordid history that dates from the Civil War, to Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement’s backlash, and Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon’s (among others) use of the “Southern Strategy” — a history I can only sketch hazily here. In sum, BlacKkKlansman does an excellent job of not only showing the racism of America’s past, but also of showing through allusion, that it is not going away any time soon. The plans of white supremacists are often much more shrewd than we give them credit for — though, if enacted in full, they will inevitably lead to only one logical “Solution.” Thus, the scariest notion of David Duke and Co. is its very real connotations with the radical members of American governance today.
While strong criticisms were levelled against BlacKkKlansman, for instance, Boots Riley’s essay on, essentially, how it went too easy on police; or Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson arguing that it was more or less a ﬁlm that preached to the choir, — criticisms I in part agree with — I think that the crumbs of information regarding institutionalized (as opposed to overt, Klan-like) racism are there for the discerning eye, or for the viewer willing to dig deeper. One of the opening examples of such, is the string of proﬁles requested from Stallworth as he worked in the Records department of the Colorado Springs police: all records asked for were of black men. Less salient examples would be the racism of Stallworth’s Chief of Police, who at one point, parrots Duke’s claim that black people can be discerned by voice alone. Another comes at the climax of the movie. Stallworth, not in uniform, apprehending a suspect, a white woman looking the quintessential American housewife who has planted C4 in a terrorist plot, is mistaken by other ofﬁcers arriving on the scene as an aggressor. Not only that, they refuse Stallworth the privilege of showing the badge he has in his pocket — violently, with a baton to the gut — but, when Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) arrives, also not in uniform but gun drawn, he is able to simply toss the ofﬁcers his own badge and waltz forward with no issues. The scene calls to mind the it’s-not-what-it-looks-like moment at the end of another great ﬁlm, Get Out (2017) — whose director, Jordan Peele, also produced BlacKkKlansman. Such small details exhibit that the outright supremacist rhetoric of David Duke lurks more nefariously throughout America itself — in its institutions, in its subconscious. Once you see it, there is no real escape from it. While the ﬁlm does handle these borderline-subliminal race relations, as well as directing, acting, writing, and virtually all technical aspects of ﬁlm making extraordinarily well, I can’t help but wrap back around to the aforementioned critics. Wilkinson only touches on one key aspect, and that is the relationship between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who are undercover cop and president of a black students’ union respectively, but this is a relationship that goes woefully unexplored. Dumas quotes thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, but we never see how DuBois’ notion of “double consciousness” is ameliorated through Dumas and Stallworth. The movie simply ends with their relationship somehow in-tact despite the visceral hatred of all things police Dumas holds.
That being said, BlacKkKlansman’s end will undoubtedly go down as legendary, with the utter fantasy of busting a racist cop shattered by an abrupt and unsettling tonal shift to the unsettling reality: footage of the Charlottesville rally, including the car attack — the terrorist attack — perpetrated by James Fields, leaving twenty-eight injured and one, Heather Heyer, dead. And, of course, the President of the United States’ unnerving statement which followed.
BlacKkKlansman is in UK theatres from 24th August. Based on the true life-story of Ron Stallworth, a black man who used his position as the first Afro-American officer/detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department to expose racism and injustice.