Amidst the contemporary climate of inclusionary activism emerges seasoned director Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. Based on a book of the same title by protagonist Ron Stallworth, the book and movie entertain via depicting black entry in a white space. This activity occurs multiple times at once throughout the film, the most notable being protagonist Ron Stallworth staging his intervening of the kkk, while also infiltrating the soliders of white supremacy—the Police department.
John David Washington does a brilliant job as Ron Stallworth, a man manufactured for the use by his oppressors, almost too brilliant. It is perhaps easy to label Stallworth as a man caught between his “blackness” and assimilatory whiteness, but this is what most viewers want to believe. Stallworth is not caught between his blackness and assimilatory whiteness, assimilation is what Stallworth has been bred to believe is freedom and that is what he seeks. Stallworth’s ambitions are somewhat troubled in his encounter with a beautiful black woman who is on a journey towards blackness. His infatuation with her is similar to James Weldon Johnson’s reflection of Booker T. Washington at the end of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Both infatuations are the result of mediating on “what could have been.” Both bear a predisposition towards pro-blackness as a choice of doom, that it does not appear or function as beautiful as Patrice, the black student union president, or Booker T. Washington makes it look. Therefore, both illustrate an alternative ending to a fate their counterparts tried desperately to avoid.
Assimilatory whiteness speaks to alternative attributes of melanated beings developed and performed with the intention of diluting physical blackness. Assimilatory whiteness emerges from a normalized fear, and is an effort to mollify said fear by subconsciously performing as expected. Though bearing the “black is beautiful” image of the 1970s with a full natural and sideburns, Stallworth has the American superpower of a transcendent voice. His voice, dichotomous to the his physical appearance, becomes the key that opens doors to thresholds withheld from the average being of black form. Thought the film seems a meditation of moving beyond the voice, or the voice as a tool against those whom it emulates, the undercurrent of its depiction in the film, is that the white voice is a gateway to change. Specifically, that merging “white” with “black,” or the colorless to the colored is the most concrete path to change.
The issue with this illustration is that the black body remains displaced with the burden of change. In this contemporary climate of pseudo change, the black body remains burdened with the social responsibility to change what they did not great, to fight through forgiveness, to join forces with our oppressors in hopes of being oppressed under more “gentle” circumstances. This is what I call inclusionary activism, which despite the phrasing, is not activism at all. Inclusionary activism, is a seemingly revolutionary project that mollifies wrestling with the ugly and uncomfortable by holding hands with the ugly and uncomfortable. The film rides the fence between two sides, making it not too much of anything, and therefore baby steps forward countered by two giant steps backwards in the liberation of black thought and image.
Black Power v. White Power: Fence Riding
Perhaps the most disturbing moment of the film is the juxtaposing of “black power” with “white power.” Namely, the black student union of Colorado Springs and the white demonstrations of the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK. The juxtaposition implies a similarity. Particularly, this juxtaposition suggests that saying “black power” is synonymous with “white power”. This could not be more untrue. Black power is rooted in a nationalism that wishes to grant blacks their own, and white power is rooted in seeking to own black people through oppression. ]
The film also features David Duke as saying that he does not “hate” blacks, but wants blacks to “be with their own.” As conveyed, this ideology suggests a similarity between the black and white power groups. Duke’s words however do not convey the truth, but rather what white supremacists tell themselves. The infiltration of Ron Stallworth into Kwame Ture’s attendance at the black student union, is an imperative depiction. On one hand, it illustrates the intention of black entry into white spaces. Black entry into white spaces has absolutely nothing to do with anti-racist ideologies, but everything to do with diversifying the ways in which racism is practiced. In recruiting blacks desperate for visibility and the white man’s commerce, comes the Step’n Fetchit’s and Clarence Thomas’s of the world, seen commonly in black officers and police chiefs used to convey racist messages or even execute racist behavior. It is also seen in schools where black bodies are employed to instruct the next generation of students to acquiesce to the subjugation designed for them. In short, black inclusion does not illustrate whites as allies in post-racial America, but blacks as allies in a wound worsened by infection veiled as infiltration.
This depiction also illustrates what the movie appears to work against “That anything is possible with the right white man.” Stallworth states this line almost ironically when articulating his plans to infiltrate the KKK to the police chief. The irony wears off in the reality that this very scenario illustrates these very words. Stallworth’s plan ends with Stallworth being taken for the black man he is—unprotected by the fickle veil of a badge and blue clothing. This scene proves a platform for the emergence of the white savior figure, embodied by Phillip, or “flip.” This emergence illustrates that you can do right when the man beside you is white, making the initial utterance of this statement not ironic but an ideology that anchors the film.
With the ally ship of white men, Stallworth is able to have a “crooked” cop arrested and exposes the deadly ways the KKK. This depiction is central in proving the pervasive ideology of the “good” white, the “anti-trump” white person. A stance weakened by the reality that it is easy to be “good” when your gestures do nothing to negotiate your superior societal position. By this I mean that although the actions of Stallworth’s coworkers appear good, what is not so good is that the white man is still literally calling the shots. The white man is still very much still the fate-decider, he remains a manifestation of god, with the token black man as a manifestation of Jesus—the “chosen one” nailed to the cross for the good if his people. So as much as many want this film to push again the very forces that continue to oppress us as a people, Blackkklansman is the lastest product of a black man who is allowed to “win” in a white world because he is a Ron Stallworth of Hollywood. Lee is the chosen one who humanizes the white man in function and implication—allowing the white man to play god in a fate that seems to favor his “chosen” black subjugate.
The white savior is a persistent image throughout the film, perhaps most persistently aligned with Phillip or “Flip,” who provides a body to the white voice created by creation Ron Stallworth. Phillip’s nickname “Flip,” though seemingly synonymous with his “passing” as WASP, actualizes the fence rides that consumes the film. The film’s fence riding is perhaps best illustrated by its guest of honor, Harry Belafonte who recalls the horrifying murder and torture of Jesse Washington. Now, my critique is not of Mr. Belafonte the individual, because I acknowledge that Mr. Belafonte has done more for the black collective than I have. I will say that Belafonte embodies the fence-riding illustrated by this film. My commentary meditates on the dichotomous reality of Belafonte, a man who was walked beside the greats of black thought and action, yet dedicatedly espoused to white women for over sixty years. Belafonte’s marital selection seems eerily aligned to the other distinction between he and the other black men involved in civil rights—the fact that he saw 91 and most did not live to see past 40.
Feminism: A One-Woman Show
The White Woman is a singular entity, a single entity the film depicts in excess. A small man with penis envy, Felix’s plus side wife symbolizes the excess that he seeks. Felix speaks and treats his wife like a child, an action that functions deliberately to display Felix’s constructed masculinity. Connie, wife of KKK member Felix, has all the bearings of a southern mistress. Her accent is deep, her home quintessential American middle class. She makes the home, but she also makes the deadly ambitions of her prejudice husband a reality. When Felix decides to target the black female leaders of the Black student union, it is the white woman who executes his plan. As she journeys to plant a bomb at Patrice’s home, Connie sees Patrice as not a “Woman” but as black– reflective of how the black women is seen throughout the global paradigm of white supremaycy. This depiction of white femininity as merely executing the ambitions of white male patriarchs, and inevitably anchored in race not gender, is an imperative lesson to the black viewer.
Another Sad Depiction of Black femininity
Actress Lauren Harriet plays Patrice, her portrayal yet another embodiment of the fair-skinned love interest. This depiction is also another representation of the biracial female body as the face of the black female narrative. This reoccurring action makes this casting neither coincidence or circumstantial, but custom. Though the paper bag test is commonly referred to as an occurrence of the past, the paper bag remains a standard for black female beauty. Specifically, as depicted in the acceptable beauty of Patrice’s thick features paired with her lighter skin, the paper bag test remains the determining force in whether full lips and African bone structure is attractive enough to warrant visibility.
Patrice’s feature in the film bears an eerie connection to the juxtaposition of black bodies with ancient European art/depictions—common occurrences that allude to the resurrection of the enlightenment period. The enlightenment period is the perfume white nationalists, liberals, and conservatives places over the truth of the black dehumanization of that period—a dehumanization that still persists. This image functions as aesthetical elevation in the violent shadows of the platform in which it earns visibility.
So is John David Washington exceptionally pleasant to look at and watch excel at a craft mastered by many who will never make the big screen? Yes. But this film, an all lives matter depiction marked as black progressive, is yet another notch on the belt of white supremacy who continues to foment new and improved ways to compromise the minds of the colored. Ironically, the film speaks of and to the power of a Jewish media, and it is this same influence that inspires the juxtaposition of the black struggle with the Jewish struggle. The film paints the portrait that “we are all oppressed” and “racism is killing us all.” Racism however is not killing us all, those who compose the North American majority continue to benefit from racism. Even this film, that could have been blacker in content and execution remains overwhelmingly saturated in white presence.
The good and bad guys are white. The film is three dimensional solely in its portrayal of white people, which depicts its black authorship as seemingly irretrievably vested in whiteness. There is a moment in the film where Stallworth asks his Jewish coworker why he has “not bought into this?” specifically referencing their infiltration of an organization that poses harm to them both. The truth is Phillip does not have to buy into his otherness, because he is still white in a white supremacist nation. Phillip can “flip” (his nickname in the film) because he is white. The black body too can flip through assimilatory whiteness, but they are dismembered in the process. Particularly, blacks who adopt an assimilatory whiteness do so at the expense of owning their body, which is what viewers see in both Ron Stallworth and director Spike Lee.
Lee, like Stallworth, seems to believe in the process of change from the inside. There actions of infiltration or entry into spaces that remain dominated by whites, appear an attempt of nuanced activism—inclusionary activism. Inclusionary activism– a symptom of post traumatic slave disorder were the mentally enslaved convince themselves (and others) that their assimilatory actions are a means to liberate their people. Inclusionary activism, as depicted by Stallworth and Lee, always results in the oversimplification or erasure of the black struggle.
To this many will deem my articulation as wrassling with the oppression olympics. The violent phrasing “the oppression olympics” implies the belief that blacks are the sole sufferers of the west. This is of course not true. What is true is that no other group has endured or continues to endure the level of oppression as black people. You not oppressed if ownership and nationalism are accompanied in an unadulterated perception of self. Blacks are handed self in the form of a caricature, and antagonized in their pursuit of ownership and togetherness. As illustrated in the film’s depiction of police infiltration of black events, black unity actualizes the biggest fear of this nation. The unity of other minority groups, or non-black persons of color does not pose a threat to a nation that awards them what they will deprive from blacks to ensure a stagnant oppression to those of the black collective.
One of the most persistent ways the black body remains oppressed is through hyper-sexuality, a common theme in Spike Lee’s depictions of black bodies. To put things bluntly, Lee seems a prisoner of the caricatured male gaze in many of his projects. This project is a tad different, as the solely sexualized body is Phillip, a Jewish man who in his infiltration of the KKK, is asked to show his genitals as a means to prove his Arian lineage. It is interesting and an oversimplification of the black male experience, in a narrative that is supposed to be of a black man, that it is a Jewish man whose penis functions as “other.” Yes, in the same film where the horror story of a tortured, castrated and murdered Jesse Washington is revisited, it is Jewish genital practices that are actively bothered under the gaze of a black direction. This insulting portrayal is perhaps a warm up for the image Lee leaves readers with—the face of Heather Heyer, a white woman killed in the Charlotteville Riots last year. As a being of black form, it hurts to see this image as the final unspoken words of a film supposedly of melanin creation. The pain stems from the illustration of yet another black body as a bridge in which the white collective crosses to a fictive superiority, a fictive superiority made real through black sacrifice of self.
Though overly a page in the chapter of “black lives matter,” the film is easily an “all lives matter” film. Black Klansman is merely anti-Trump propaganda functioning to keep Donald Trump, and every other white man central in a white supremacist world. The final moments of the film exhibit “what I wish I would do,” which includes telling off whites but does not include black ownership or reconciling black twoness. Instead Stallworth seeks to continue living a split life. Viewers witness a similar action in director Spike Lee who offers viewers flashes of consciousness negated by a need to depict equity of struggle where there is none. Nevertheless, the film in execution appears an apology for the pervasiveness of black suffering, so much so, that it must be aligned with other, and lesser form of oppression.
Black Power ❤