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My 12 for ’18: The (Black) Power of Stories in “BlacKkKlansman”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number nine.

At its core, BlacKkKlansman is a story about the power of stories. In particular, the power of cinema.

This is no real surprise. Spike Lee is an avowed cinephile with an incredible hunger and passion for the medium. Lee knows the history of cinema, and understands the historical context of cinema. BlacKkKlansman is alternately a loving homage to blaxploitation and a discussion of blaxploitation. It is a film that is fundamentally about the way in which the stories that people tell influence and shape the world in which they live.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a sequence in which real-life Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte plays a fictionalised activist. He recounts, in gory detail, the story of a horrific lynching that he witnessed as a child. He contextualises this attack by reference to the success of Birth of a Nation, which he describes using the (anachronistic) term “blockbuster.” This sequence is intercut with the induction of new members into the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, while gleefully rewatching (and cheering) Birth of a Nation.

The most interesting idea within BlacKkKlansman is the implication that it might be possible to counter-programme this. If narratives of hatred and violence can be perpetuated through cinema, then perhaps stories about collaboration and empathy can also be spread in that manner. Clever and self-aware, BlacKkKlansman feels like an attempt to construct one such narrative.

Upon release, there was some small controversy around BlacKkKlansman. Director Boots Riley chided Spike Lee for what he deemed to be the film’s overly deferential and delicate portrayal of the police force, particularly in terms of the omissions and alterations to the source material. Riley’s criticisms certainly make sense. While BlacKkKlansman is overtly aware of institutional racism, and even has characters discuss it, the film seems to argue that Ron Stallworth’s biggest obstacle is a single racist police officer.

There is a slight irony in this.  Spike Lee long cultivated a reputation as an angry young filmmaker. At least part of that was down to simple racism, the unfortunate stereotype applied to an African American director who had made one of the defining socially conscious films of the late eighties. Lee cultivated some of that himself with his aggressive engagement with other film makers like Quentin Tarantino. (There are points in his film when characters demonstrate justifiable anger at their situations, and also where Clive Owen complains about Grand Theft Auto.)

Given its subject matter, BlacKkKlansman is surprisingly disinterested in anger. There is a frustration from figures like Ron Stallworth and Patrice Dumas at the way they are treated. There is growing concern from members of local law enforcement about hints of plans for violence by the Ku Klux Klan. There is passion from Kwame Ture when addressing local African American students. Ture, in particular, advocates for a coming revolution. (There is also a strong sense that Ture is being performative and theatrical, in keeping with the film’s themes.)

However, there is also a very strong sense of solidarity and community. BlacKkKlansman devotes relatively little time to the members of the Ku Klux Klan. It offers very little backstory for characters like Felix and Connie Kendrickson, Walter Breachway or Ivanhoe. BlacKkKlansman really does not care why these people are the way that they are. There is no interest in their economic anxiety or the sad stories about their collapsing community. The racists in BlacKkKlansman are portrayed as cartoonish and boorish monsters.

Instead, BlacKkKlansman is more interested with the question of allyship. BlacKkKlansman repeatedly emphasises the importance of the white characters around Ron, and how they both enable and support him while he also helps to expand their awareness and understanding. This is most obvious with the fictionalised character Flip Zimmerman, a creation unique to the film. (In reality, Ron was partnered with a wide variety of white agents.) As such, the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan is a collaborative effort by “the Stallworth Brothers”, one black and one white.

Through his collaborations with Ron, Flip comes to understand issues of identity and persecution, becoming increasingly sympathetic to Ron’s situation and experiences. Sergeant Trapp is arguably even more attuned to these realities than Ron, ably supporting and encouraging the operation while also more acutely aware of the political threat that David Duke poses to the United States. Ron mocks the idea that somebody could be elected while adhering to the politics of David Duke, but Trapp is more cynical.

The operation in BlacKkKlansman is a triumph of allyship, of people from different backgrounds working together for the greater good in support of Ron’s operation. It is no coincidence that BlacKkKlansman closes with a genuinely moving tribute to Heather Hayer, who was murdered by a neo-Nazi at Charlottesville. Hayer is white. She was there in support of the communities threatened by resurgent racism. That has a very real and tangible value, just like Flip’s growing understanding of what Ron lives with.

Of course, this doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. White Americans are worryingly comfortable with the politics of Donald Trump and frustratingly oblivious to the realities that minorities confront everyday. There are far too few people like Heather Hayer out there in the world. All too often, real people like Ron Stallworth are forced to go it alone and to navigate impossible situations without any tangible support.

BlacKkKlansman acknowledges this, particularly towards the ending. The investigation is shut down due to lack of funding. Ron and Patrice are menaced by a cross burning. There is one happy beat, in which Patrice and Ron stage a trap to catch the racist police officer on the local force. However, the sequence plays almost like self-parody, as various major characters emerge from the woodwork smiling and cheering. In a film packed with absurdities, that sequence is consciously over the top.

However, even if this portrayal does not match reality, does that matter? BlacKkKlansman repeatedly comes back to the idea that film can heavily influence and shape society. The film opens with an odious white supremacist documentary. Ture discusses how films like Tarzan taught him to internalise society’s racism. Turner talks at length about the influence of Birth of a Nation in a sequence intercut with the audience actually watching the affect that Birth of a Nation has on white supremacists.

BlacKkKlansman essentially tries to weaponise itself. It wonders if the best way to combat insidious and pernacious myths perpetuated by popular culture might be to tell better stories. BlacKkKlansman suggests that solution to the racism that infects and infuses contemporary popular culture might be stripped out and replaced with something better. BlacKkKlansman puts itself forward as one such example.

Of course, the idea that racism might be defeated by better films is hopelessly romantic. However, it is still a much better idea than a lot of the other notions that ripple through popular consciousness. BlacKkKlansman is a film anchored in the idea that movies might change how we see the world, and proposed to actually do something meaningful with that. It is a triumph.

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