By Martin Vogel
Can compromised organisations be turned into a force for good in society, and can individuals exert positive impacts in organisations whose dark side overshadows their light? These questions are put by Spike Lee’s compelling film Blackkklansman.
A dramatisation of the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the film zeros in on the intersection between the two organisations, the Colorado Police Department and the Klan, in the late 1970s
Both are responding in their way to the liberalising forces that have swept through America in the preceding years. The police are encouraging the recruitment of ethic minorities. The Klan are donning suits and attempting to sanitise their rhetoric, in order to take their hateful message mainstream. There are elements within both organisations which resent the liberal turn. Beyond the police, a third organisational player, the network of black power activists, poses awkward questions about the rationale for liberalising. Stallworth strikes up a relationship with the leader of the local activists. She categorically dismisses the idea that a racist police force can be reformed from within.
In their insistence that black people have no business being inside the police, the activists perhaps resemble the Klan more than they resemble Stallworth. This is a point Lee drives home towards the end of the film when he cuts between images of the Klan and the activists in their separate meetings chanting, respectively, “White power!” and ”Black power!” The Klan look repulsive and animalistic, stuffing their faces with popcorn as they watch a screening of The Birth of a Nation. The activists are more dignified and measured, throwing off the chains of oppression. But still, we are left wondering, where can this all end?
Lee presents both sides of the black community’s debate between revolution and reform with sensitivity. There’s a moving montage of faces in the audience as the radical organiser, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), addresses a meeting. The local police chief fears the impact of Ture’s radicalism but Stallworth senses the mood of the meeting as being moderate, and Ture’s rhetoric as being less inflammatory than a literal reading might imply. Meanwhile, the police department is presented as a nuanced environment, capable of racism but not defined by it. Stallworth encounters racist colleagues. But he’s also part of a team who have his back – without which, of course, a black police officer would not have advanced beyond first base in infiltrating the KKK.
Stallworth teams up with a white colleague: Stallworth handling the conversations on the phone with the Klan; his colleague, Flip, taking care of showing face. It’s Flip, then, who faces greater physical jeopardy; the more so because Lee makes him Jewish. The Klan hate Jews as much as they hate blacks and Lee doesn’t flinch from depicting the depravity of both hatreds. A Klansman and his wife cuddle in bed at night while she muses, “We’ve talked for years about killing niggers and now it’s really happening.” Flip, forced to take a “Jew detector” test by a suspicious Klansman, outbids the Klansman’s Holocaust denial by insisting that the Holocaust was “a beautiful thing”.
There are lots of binary choices in this film that Lee answers with dualities. Both Stallman and Flip are on a journey to reconcile their place in the white man’s world with their backgrounds outside it. Flip is slower on the uptake. He’s been “passing” for white all his life and it’s Stallworth who has to remind him that he has “skin in the game”. But then it’s a white sergeant who invites Stallworth to “wake up” when he expresses incredulity that America could elect somebody like David Duke, the Klan leader, as president.
This is more than a knowing joke. It is a comic film in many ways and Duke is presented for much of it as a hapless figure of fun. But Lee brings the story brutally up to date at the end with footage of the moment last year when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville, killing a demonstrator, Heather Heyer. The scene is intercut with Duke today advocating for Donald Trump, and Trump himself drawing moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and those who protest against them.
The seemingly academic debates portrayed earlier acquire a contemporary urgency. The Klan, though apparently a bunch of losers and misfits, seem to have succeeded in taking their message mainstream. The police, for all their strides towards inclusion, are still killing black people on the streets. Charlottesville – where neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” – demonstrates that the resonance between racism and anti-semitism is a continuing concern. It leaves us wondering what the well-meaning efforts of the likes of Stallman have achieved.
But if there are two things Lee insists on in this film, they are a commitment to nuance and the solidarity of experience between black and Jewish people. In the nuance lies the possibility of meeting extremism with moderation. In the kinship between blacks and Jews lies an answer to the otherwise bleak conclusion of the film. Early on, Lee shows Kwame Ture addressing his audience of black students with a stirring call to awakening:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? And if not me, who?”
Ture here draws for inspiration on an ancient Talmudic scholar, Hillel. But his words also echo a more recent writer, Primo Levi, who wrote of the Jewish partisans in Italy being inspired by Hillel’s quote in their struggle against fascism. The invitation is to eschew facing insuperable odds with a sense of despair. The world as it is demands action now of all us. Stallworth strikes a solitary figure as a black man choosing to join the police. But he’s taking his stand and he finds support for his struggle among colleagues. His undercover operation broke up a KKK chapter and prevented acts of violence. That the ancient hatreds are reasserting themselves is not his failure. They demonstrate that his quest needs to be taken up afresh, and his struggle may always be with us.