Spike Lee's answer to The Birth of a Nation
“Do the Right Thing.” “Jungle Fever.” “Malcolm X.” Now “BlacKkKlansman.” No maker of feature films in our time, or perhaps during any time, has placed so much of their work at the center of the social and political discourse as Spike Lee.
His cinematic voice is political and his platform is black empowerment. In his most important works, he demands that his voice be heard — in the subject matter, the story lines, and the ways the movies are marketed. He is forthright about this, and he never shies away from making his views known, particularly when it comes to race.
“BlacKkKlansman” — Lee’s contemplation on race, American history, policing, and contemporary politics — is complete nourishment. The revelation isn’t that Spike Lee is a genius. I already knew that. What he does here is present the true human condition — what’s beautiful, and vile, and inspirational, and hateful, and redemptive, and sick, and worthy, and unfit, and America.
The movie was released on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, led by members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other assorted white supremacists. Heather Heyer, a young woman who joined hundreds of others to march in opposition to racial terror, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of the white-supremacy opponents.
As he watched those events unfold in 2017, Lee said he immediately knew he had to revisit that footage of the car ramming into the crowd in “BlacKkKlansman.” So he sought, and received, permission from Heather Heyer’s mother to use it.
Lee spoke about the Charlottesville events the day after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, calling the incident an “ugly, ugly, ugly blemish on the United States of America.”
“Heather should be alive now. It’s a murderous act.”
He went on to discuss President Donald Trump’s reaction to what happened there, saying he “defined that moment not just for Americans but the world.” He said Trump failed to denounce the Klan, the alt-right, and Nazis.
“It was a defining moment, and he could have said to the world, not just the United States, that we were better than that.”
When Lee juxtaposes the events in this film with scenes from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” it places his body of work and his position in our culture alongside the ultimate presentation of racist propaganda. Upon its 1915 release, that movie was lauded as “The Supreme Picture of All Time” and “Eighth Wonder of the World.” After all, it took three years to produce and featured 18,000 people and 3,000 horses.
On the evening of March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson attended a special screening at the White House of “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie adapted from the novel “ The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” written by Wilson’s good friend Thomas Dixon.
After seeing the film, Wilson is said to have remarked: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
The film was, in fact, a white supremacist rewrite of Reconstruction and post-Civil War history of the South and North. It was a three-hour, cinematic lynching of every black man, woman, and child in the United States.
White actors in blackface provided performances of demonic black men assaulting and forcing themselves on white women. Black politicians were depicted as having habits and behavior not unlike zoo animals.
Klan members, in particular, were depicted as noble and heroic, rescuing white women from their black attackers.
After showings around the country, mobs of white audience members roamed the streets attacking blacks. Cities such as Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, and St. Louis denied permission for release of the film based on concerns about violence.
Dixon cheered the reaction to “The Birth of a Nation,” saying that it served its purpose, “to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
“BlacKkKlansman” is Lee’s vehicle to show us what the Klan represents in modern America and who Klansmen are. It’s his prism through which to view the state of race relations and racial dialogue in America now.
He’s done this before, by other means. In “Do the Right Thing,” he used the complicated dynamics between black residents of big city neighborhoods and those of other backgrounds with whom they must coexist.
In “Jungle Fever,” it was the deep-seated desires and fears associated with interracial relationships.
In “Malcolm X,” he explored the sweep of the modern Civil Rights Movement through the personal evolution of one of its greatest visionaries.
He used a modern-day minstrel show in “Bamboozled” to demonstrate how black Americans are harmed by television stereotypes.
In “BlacKkKlannsman,” we see racial dynamics play out through a variety of perspectives and a variety of lenses, one after the next. It’s the police watching black people. It’s the Klan watching black people. It’s black people watching black people. It’s one Klansman watching the other. It’s the Klansman’s wife watching him.
The Klansmen are people. They are consumed by hatred, evil, and dishonesty, as some people are. As such, they are reflections of the hatred, evil, and dishonesty that help to define what America is.
Everyone, white and black, is asked the hard questions about how to fix ourselves and how to fix America.
In the film, inspired by a true story, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, police hire Ron Stallworth as their first black officer. Looking to make an immediate impact, he persuades his chief to allow him to infiltrate a Klan group through phone contact and shared undercover identity with a white detective, played by Adam Driver. While that detective, who is Jewish, personally infiltrates the group, Stallworth maintains phone contact and surveils the Klansmen from a distance — mostly.
John David Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth captures where black men found themselves in the 1970s. So many of us wanted to establish our place in the liberation struggle. So we adopted the rhetoric, read the books, signed up for black studies classes in college, and listened to the words of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), and so many others.
But the direct action of the 1960s didn’t exist to the same extent when we were in high school and college and then into our 20s. So we sought to maintain our self-respect and make sure our afros were symmetrical at all times. Those words from Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” fueled us: “Keep on walking tall, hold your head up high.”
I recognized the confidence evident in Stallworth’s walk, whether he was entering the police precinct or a nightclub. We walked with purpose then, whether subconsciously or consciously. We had decided that the way we walked had to look different from that of a second-class citizen. We began to move more freely than our parents, or even our older brothers and sisters, had.
But somewhere out there was always some encounter with police, some dispute in a clothing store, or the random yelling of “nigger” from a passing car, to remind us we were still in America, whether it be Colorado Springs, or Baltimore, or Birmingham, or Brooklyn.
As we searched for who we were and where we fit in, we also searched for our version of Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver. In “BlackkKlansman,” the student activist Patrice Dumas, portrayed by Laura Harrier, is that woman. She’s brilliant and committed and regal under a large Afro. Whenever you went to a party, you hoped you’d run into somebody like her.
The film reminds me that the parties in the 70s had just the right mixture of songs for shaking it and songs for dancing up close. I recall asking a girl named Monique to dance at Sheila Hill’s party in the suburban creation called Columbia, Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington. The song was “Sideshow” by Blue Magic. The scent of Afro Sheen, or Ultra Sheen, or both in that beautiful afro also still resides in my memory.
Because as it was for Ron Stallworth when he found Patrice Dumas, survival and any sort of well-being require finding a refuge in love and beauty and music. Right there and right then, the moment was all that mattered.
Mark Allan Williams is a journalist and essayist living in Baltimore. His work examines issues of culture, race, and politics.