In the wake of the Black Lives Protests, it has become clear that the majority culture has missed a few episodes so a look at Spike Lee‘s BlacKkKlansman is needed. The film makes subtle points in a non-subtle way. The most important is that white liberal middle-class Christian male identity is the ‘original’ identity politics. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a white liberal middle-class Christian man, the problem lies in the refusal to see that our society has been shaped in that image and our consciousness reflecting specific prejudices and values.
Society is not a neutral space where individuals interact with other individuals, as libertarians think. Society has structures of power, which create obstacles for the Other (the non-white liberal middle-class Christian man). Culture is the narratives that emerge from social relationships and that legitimise them. The image of a neutral individual colour-blind, gender-blind, etc. is ‘white privilege’, the privilege of not being racialised, gendered, othered. White privilege means never having to ask yourself what it means to be white. BlacKkKlansman explores what it means to be black and what it means to be Jewish, but also how white Christian nationalism has shaped whiteness.
BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He does so by establishing contact with Klan’s leaders on the phone and through a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee oscillates between teaching his audience about American history and identity politics and portraying the KKK as fools, between tragic and comic mishandling both. I grew up with Spike’s movies. They shaped my consciousness, so I miss the old Spike.
In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has played it safe giving us a crowd-pleaser, but one that is muddled and weakened by the tension between comedy and melodrama. Gone are Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing with their uncompromising look into a messy reality told with ironic anger. Yet, buried underneath the self-satisfied humour and self-righteous preaching, BlacKkKlansman offers a few glimpses of the making of racial identity that are worth considering.
In the film, the KKK repertoire of language, symbols, and rituals is contrasted with that of the Black Power Movement. The storytelling of White Supremacists watching DW Griffiths’ A Birth of a Nation, is counterposed with Harry Belafonte’s telling of the lynching of black people. American culture has been shaped by Christian nationalism and capitalist individualism. It has been presented as the default, the universal, while suppressing the experiences of the Other and depicting them through stereotypes and labels, and confining them into social roles (e.g. women as mothers and wives). Above all, it has hidden the systemic violence and oppression black people have suffered and are still suffering.
BlacKkKlansman shows that racism and systemic inequality have been legitimised and reproduced by the cultural process of Othering. Racism is not merely individual prejudice, but a whole set of norms and material obstacles that keep the Other in ‘their place’.
The film highlights that race is embodied but also performed. Ron Stallworth does a ‘white voice’ to fool the Klan, but can only infiltrate it because of the ‘white body’ of his colleague Flip Zimmerman. To persuade his boss to let him go under cover with the Klan, Ron tells him there are those who speak ‘King’s English’ and those who speak ‘Jive’. He’s perfectly fluent in both. Ron needs Flip Zimmerman to play him as a white man with the Klan. In a moment of camaraderie, under instruction from Ron, Flip tries to perform a speech by a black power leader, only to be outperformed by another colleague (on blackness, performance, and politics see Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness).
The image we have of the body is also highly racialised (voice, hair, skin etc.). White privilege means whites do not normally ask themselves what it means to be white. Yet, there are many shades of white. Foreign-born and Jews are not considered ‘whites’. Zimmerman had never considered himself anything other than white because he had not grown up as part of a Jewish community. It is the Klan’s idea of whiteness that leads him to confront his identity.
Flip tells Ron that he was not raised to be Jewish, it was never part of his life, he had never gone to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah. He never had Jewish friends, he was just another ‘white kid’. Flip’s Jewishness is called out by a colleague mentioning his ‘Jewish necklace.’ Flip replies that ‘it’s not a Jewish necklace, but the Star of David.’ Asked whether he’s Jewish, he says: ‘I don’t know. Am I?’ Zimmerman realises he too is Other as he faces white supremacists.
The most poignant scenes are the real footage of Charlottesville’s ‘Unite the Right Rally,’ where a white supremacist drove his car deliberately into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killed Heather Heyer, to whom the film is dedicated. It may seem far away from our British and European sensibilities and yet it is very close, we just have not talked about it much (please read Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack). BlaKkKlansman is weighed down by its pedagogical impulse, yet it’s a lesson many have not yet heard.