How a true story from the 1970s reflects our current socio-cultural times
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
From Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X to Bamboozled, Spike Lee has always found ways to engage in stark and uncomfortable conversations about race when, for the most part, American society has barely dared to give lip service to the subject matter. We talk around it, gloss over it with broad generalities, or claim to not see the problems that have been baked into the cake from the beginning. Remember, this is the country that foisted the responsibility to have such discussion on its only black President, as if he were somehow to blame for the whole mess in the first place.
In his latest film BlackkKlansman, Lee refuses to let us close our eyes or fake blindness. Even more so, he’s using the period setting as an obvious reflection on the current state of race relations, which is not all that different today than it was in the 1970s when Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joined the Colorado Springs police force.
We watch him patting down his stylish halo of an Afro before walking into his interview and before we hear that he would be the first black police officer on their force, we recognize the reality of the situation. We know he’s going to have to put up with questions about whether or not he uses drugs (with the assumption being that he does), his level of patriotism to the country, especially in light of the unpopular Vietnam War which has an inordinate amount of American people of color being shipped overseas to kill other brown people, and how he might handle one of his fellow officers using derogatory (racist) language. The goal here is to make sure he’s the right kind of black fellow for the job.
The post-racial landscape of today’s world leads us to believe that there’s no need for such concerns. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action, and the two-term election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we have certifiable proof that we’ve moved past our tricky and quite peculiar racial history, right? There are no more significant “firsts” for black folks to overcome. We’ve done it and American society is free at last, free at last.
Yet, by employing a parallel investigation narrative, Lee and his screenwriters (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott who partnered with Lee on a draft) zoom in on undercover examinations into a student-run black power organization and their leaders alongside a look at a branch of the Ku Klux Klan that is brazen enough to actually post an advertisement in the classified section of the newspaper, which inspires Stallworth to call the phone number and use his “white voice” (unlike the vocal overdubs used earlier this summer in the Boots Riley indie film Sorry to Bother You, Washington enunciates with a perfectly pitched and eerily sunny American voice) to convince the recruiters that he’s an aggrieved white guy eager to join the cause.
At every step along the way, Stallworth must prove himself and that his cause is worthy, totally handcuffed by a sense of remaining faithful to the right (white) path. He “performs” during an incident at a Black Power rally featuring the appearance of an impassioned Kwame Ture (a brief, but fiery embodiment by Corey Hawkins) but must stop short of expressing strong association with the group’s goals (“all power to all the people”), whereas when Stallworth’s partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) assumes the role of the “white” Stallworth amongst the Klansmen, the character has free rein to voice support for racist propaganda and use vile language to insinuate himself into the inner circle.
As a society, we no longer impose a sense of double consciousness on black people, a need to exist with one foot in the white world and another in the black community, but that’s not entirely true. White boys and men up and down the socio-economic scale can embrace the style and swagger of hip hop culture freely in the workplace and in social settings, but the stereotypes and fears of angry black folks remain in the hearts and minds of white society and serve to hinder the full-emotional expression of black people.
On the personal side, Stallworth struggles with his divided consciousness because he wants to be a good and effective police officer, but through his gradually developing romantic relationship with a committed student activist (Laura Harrier), he also longs to make real change for black people by working within the system, which he recognizes is deeply flawed.
Stallworth’s situation, and the period link, contrasts with that of the unnamed officer in Black Cop, the contemporary drama by writer-director Cory Bowles set against the backdrop of a city in crisis following a police shooting of an unarmed black man. That black cop (Ronnie Rowe), once pressed to consider what side he stands on—black or blue—lives in an age where creating change from the inside appears to be an impossible mission.
That Stallworth can dare to dream of such a possibility and Lee’s film supports such a foundation is a sign of a filmmaker willing and able to let us see the world and make our own judgments. How’s that for hard truth?